Gordon Davidescu wrote this article.
When I was a kid and we took a long road trip from New Jersey to sunny Orlando, Florida for our first visit to Walt Disney World, one of my parents made an observation about strip malls.
No matter where we went, it seemed, the stores were pretty much the same. They were the same on the outside and the same on the inside. What a peculiar thing, I thought. At home we had such stores as The Princeton Record Exchange and dozens of other small stores – owned and operated by individuals or small groups of people, not large corporations.
The wheels of change were already in motion, however, and I couldn’t help but notice it. Things continued going the way of stores owned by large corporations taking the place of stores owned by individuals and where an independent bookstore once stood, suddenly a corporate owned bookstore was in its place.
You could go inside the store and be transported, so to speak, to any of the other bookstores in the chain because they were – and are – exactly the same on the inside. The same was happening to clothing stores, food stores, and more.
When my family visited France I was thrown off by our new shopping habits – we would go to a bakery to buy a loaf of bread in the morning and a small store to get fresh butter. (I won’t even begin to describe my shock when I saw that there weren’t large overburdened plates at restaurants and instead there were moderate portions!)
Here we are over twenty years later and things have progressed – if that’s the right word – in the favor of large corporations. Chains of bookstores, movie theaters, coffee houses, restaurants – if you’ve seen one, you’ve pretty much seen them all.
What’s the difference between the Barnes & Noble in your city and mine? What’s the difference between the pre-printed menus at your Starbucks and mine? Nothing.
I got a pleasant surprise when I went to visit my brother Michael in the beautiful city of Portland, Oregon. Portland is frequently thought of as a super-left leaning city where Democrats rule and recycling is enforced with an iron fist.
Put that all out of your mind because I’m here to tell you about one of the most beautiful things to come out of the city of Portland – a little something called McMenamin’s.
I was introduced to McMenamins when my brother suggested that we go to a movie at The Kennedy School, which made me raise an eyebrow because I didn’t understand how we were going to see a movie at a school. Was the school showing movies in lieu of selling brownies for fundraisers? What was going on?
It turned out that The Kennedy School used to be a real school where children went to get a good education up until the 1974-1975 year when it had to be closed due to the fact that it was just going to cost too much to repair and renovate.
A mere 22 years later, The Kennedy School reopened thanks to McMenamins.
What is so special about The Kennedy School and McMenamins in general? It is absolutely the cure, so to speak, to the chain stores and restaurants that are so identical in every way that you don’t know if you’re looking for a book in Miami or Wisconsin.
The Kennedy School, and every other McMenamins owned establishment, is entirely unique through the collection of artistic decoration and real artwork that it houses.
Every McMenamins establishment has a personality that comes from the history of the place – you cannot divorce The Kennedy School from the long history of the school.
The Kennedy School houses numerous McMenamins staples – there is a movie theater where you can see movies for three dollars, there are two restaurants, a functional brewery, and a soaking pool. While watching the movies from the comfort of a nice couch, you can have handcrafted pizza or enjoy beer from the brewery – or freshly made coffee. What kind of coffee? McMenamins coffee, of course.
You may be inclined to say that it sounds just a little bit corporate for your liking. Fret not.
Everything McMenamins is about is locality. The artwork all comes from local artists whether you are at The Kennedy School or one of the McMenamins owned pubs in Seattle. The beer is always brewed locally and not trucked in from hundreds or thousands of miles away. The coffee is even roasted locally.
The only problem with McMenamins is that you have to be in either Washington or Oregon to enjoy their wonder – but that’s part of what makes it special, too. Much like Dick’s Drive In, which has exactly five locations (all in Seattle) despite a fifty four year history, it would be quite difficult if not impossible to spread McMenamins countrywide without dilluting its excellence and turning it into yet another corporate owned chain.
The onus is therefore upon we the people to, if we are so inclined, start up our own little sparkles of light and individuality. Give people a reason to come to your bookstore and they will come in droves. Make your coffee house different – and good, and people will want to pour in and get what they will know as their little secret.
Of course, with the ease of spreading information online, my little secret can become well known by millions in a matter of days. Don’t despair if you are too far from McMenamins and make your own artistic piece of wonder today.