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Biweekly Column
Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Break the Chains

Dennis Fox

Decenber 4, 2003

Now that Toys "R" Us has decided to close its Imaginarium division because of falling profits, Coolidge Corner will soon bring a welcome sight: a big chain store pulling out of Brookline's prime shopping neighborhood. Unfortunately, Imaginarium's impending exit remains an exception to the more common trend: the expulsion of small, locally owned businesses.

I don't remember much about Coolidge Corner in the 1970s and 80s when I lived across the river, but since moving to Brookline five years ago the chain invasion has been obvious. Subway replaces a local pizza place. Quiznos Subs replaces a natural foods bakery. Courtyard by Marriott replaces a town-owned parking lot.

Sometimes existing chains just expand -- the Gap crosses the street to a bigger location, Kabloom doubles its size by taking over the space next door. And every few steps another cellular phone store offers yet one more confusing variation of unsatisfying service.

Coolidge Corner is not yet completely sanitized. We can still shop at locally owned craft, art, clothing, and jewelry stores (or at least window shop; some of us can't pay the prices our stores charge, only partly justified by Brookline's inflated rents). We can still grab a cheap-enough lunch at Rami's or Gourmet India instead of Subway or McDonalds.

We've also still got a trio of independent institutions -- Brookline Booksmith, Cinemasmith, and the non-profit Coolidge Corner Theatre -- that make the corner a destination rather than a chore. I remember bringing my sons to the theater a couple of decades ago from across the river. Things could be worse.

But independents continue to fade away. And as far as I can tell, town officials do too little to help them withstand the corporate onslaught.

In fact, in response to complaints about chain store proliferation, town officials tapping into Brookline's feeling of superiority to that city across the Charles routinely respond that Coolidge Corner has fewer chains than Harvard Square. This limp defense, though accurate, is somewhat beside the point. To crow that Brookline is not yet the worst local example of corporate capitalism's excess is hardly sufficient reassurance.

Besides, despite its disastrous direction, Harvard Square still supports more street life than our own corner. Harvard students and Cambridge high schoolers don't come to Brookline to hang out.

Imaginarium's disappearance is especially exciting because, as outlined in last week's TAB, Toys "R" Us tried hard to hide Imaginarium's ownership. Posing as a small independent rather than a superstore known for excess entices those customers who, given a choice, prefer small to large, local to national, real to fake. A big Toys "R" Us sign out front might give off the wrong vibes.

Of course, Toys "R" Us isn't the only corporation trying to fool its customers. Indeed, when simply keeping quiet about who pulls the strings isn't enough, businesses with unfriendly names just change them. That's why tobacco pusher Philip Morris suddenly became the Altria Group.

This whole Imaginarium situation makes me think Brookline should adopt an ordinance requiring every store to prominently display a sign revealing its actual ownership -- the name of the corporation owning the store, the name of the corporation owning the corporation owning the store, on up the ownership ladder to the top. The corporation's former and alternate names should also be displayed. No more fakes. Honesty in business. Who could object?

While we're coming up with ordinances, I'd apply the same rule to products sold in stores. When I buy toys, or coffee, or picture postcards, or eggs, I'd like to know who I'm actually giving my money to. Is that enticing bottle of wine or homey just-folks box of cookies really owned a couple of rungs up by some huge conglomerate I'd rather not give my money to? Maybe next year Town Meeting could mandate town-wide truth in labeling. Seems only fair.

Capitalism was nasty enough before we had big corporations to kick us around. Today, even locally owned corporate franchises ultimately build corporate wealth and power. They destroy truly local alternatives and homogenize local cultures and traditions into one big lowest-common-denominator corporate-friendly mess. Here in Brookline we should do what we can to transform Imaginarium's departure from a fluke into a trend.

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Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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