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.

19 Comments

  1. This is quite a rich article, Gordon! We are right there with you inside the McMenamins. It serves as a wonderful counterpoint to my article this morning concerning hunger in America and the Food Stamps program.
    Well done!

  2. Thank you!
    The big thing to which I am looking forward tonight happens to be McMenamins related : I’m getting my growler filled with some Workingman’s Red – also quite appropriate for your article today. It is the featured beer right now and if you look at their web site they have this quotation from Benjamin Franklin.

    It is the working man who is the happy man. It is the idle man who is the miserable man.

    Too true!

  3. I recently read a story about a man who won the UK lottery and after a few months of not working went right back to work at his local McDonalds because he missed the schedule and seeing his friends at work.
    If you like good beer, go to your local microbrewery and once you have found a beer that pleases the senses, go for a full growler! My growler happens to be in the form of a standard Ball jar that holds about 4 pints of yumminess. 🙂

  4. I pray that this McMenamins phenomenon will start to take off. We here in Greensboro North Carolina are being overtaken by chains of every kind. This sounds like a really unique and eclectic model that preserves the local flavor.
    We had a wonderful old brick cotton mill that is in the process of being destroyed brick by brick as we speak. That would have been the perfect place to do something like this. It had once been converted into a small shopping mall with a mix of smaller chains and independents at one time and then it closed down. It would have been truly something if someone had had some vision.
    But one good sign is that we have a thriving downtown with lots of independent restaurants and retailers. Used book stores are also quite big here.
    But right outside the city, the independents are having a hard time right now since the Bravo’s, Macaroni Grills, B &N’s have moved in.

  5. Gordon–How I wish I had the funds to have restored that old cotton mill! I understand the outdated electrical work was the barrier to restoring it and I imagine the restoration would have been in the millions. I used to walk around that old place with my daughter in her carriage. I’ll really miss Cotton Mill Square.
    It’s interesting that you can read between my lines. I once seriously thought about buying a coffee shop right outside of Greensboro in the rural town I live. I even talked to the owner about it. My vision was to bring in local pottery, art, old and new books, live music and that sort of thing. I still have that idea in my head. So you never know what I might do. By the way, I understand you are the “el exigente” of coffee and beer as well. That’s good to know.
    But I’m a social worker by trade and that and my family keep me pretty busy right now.

  6. Dm!
    Do you know about the beautiful world of MicroFunding?
    I think that it needs to be branched out beyond the world of getting third world companies into existence – you could in theory create your coffee shop using money that is pooled together through a lot of $5-100 microinvestments.
    My other idea is : start with just coffee and art. Then grow it by bringing in the other things. Find people that can see your dream as a reality and you will be able to make it happen even if you do have work and family – heck, the family might help make it happen!

  7. Hi Gordon!
    nice topic! it’s an encouraging trend! in India, we’re just about beginning to see malls proliferate in the last decade or so. it’ll probably take a few years before the dissatisfaction begins to set in.

  8. Gordon,
    This place really inspires me to become more of who I am!
    You’re right about that idea of starting small and then branching out. I’ve always had success with that strategy. Why not in a small business as well?
    Portland sounds like an interesting place! I’ll put it on my list–
    Take care–