When the Music Stopped

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economy

There are those rare moments in the flow of daily life, about as rare as a solar eclipse, when history does a quiet, tectonic shift, and the ordinary landscape suddenly looks irrevocably dated, in an unannounced, unnerving way. Mark Morford – at the San Francisco Chronicle (give yourself a treat and subscribe to his feed) – writes what it was like during a recent trip to Lowes:

…One fine and sunny Saturday just recently, I visited a sparkly new Lowe’s home-improvement megastore to spec out a replacement oven for my apartment, an experience I was dreading not merely because it was the last place I wanted to spend a pristine Saturday, but because on weekends those places tend to be crammed and torturous and teeming, and such crowds generally give me hives.

I needn’t have worried.

It was like walking into a private game reserve, or some sort of museum of the long-lost American dream, a spectacle not unlike being the last person on the planet. The huge doors swooshed open, and I was greeted with the eeriest scene imaginable, aisle after aisle of shiny new roto tillers and chainsaws and barbeques, lawn furniture and rolls of sod and lighting fixture and every exotic gorgeous manly power tool imaginable.

And not a single human in sight.

Check that: a handful of humans milled about, but most were sales clerks looking equal parts bored, lonely, confused. The few actual customers I finally noticed were barely visible at all, swallowed up by the gleaming mountains of unsold goods, like a few tiny ants in a farm designed to hold ten thousand.

It was, in a word, disquieting. It was, in six more, strange and dreamlike and unexpectedly sad.

I had the same experience a few weeks ago – of walking into a big home improvement store, with mountains of shiny, pristine merchandise on shelves stocked to the gills, aisles and aisles of it, and no customers in sight. A few days ago, I visited a gigantic Whole Foods Market – which had plenty of customers – but I couldn’t help but wonder whether the moment has passed for ever-bigger retail stores. This store seemed as big as a football field, with who knows how many tens of thousands of square feet. How they could possibly run it at a profit baffled me. At the checkout, high end boho lifestyle magazines with names like "Simplify" called out, but they too, seemed to be published from an earlier age when there was such a thing as "discretionary income".

I felt like getting a camera and taking pictures of the inside of Lowes and Whole Foods to show my grandkids, what the full-blown consumer lifestyle was like, in all its glory, back in America, before the crash.

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16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Ken Lovell  •  Mar 13, 2009 @12:31 am

    ‘Discretionary income’ … I think that was a coy label for ‘money you spent just for fun on stuff you didn’t need and in many cases would never even use’.

    The deeply dysfunctional nature of a society that goes pear-shaped when people STOP this kind of irrational consumption ought to be self-evident; unfortunately, most public policy seems based on the premise that the sooner we can get everyone back borrowing money to do it all again, the better.

  2. Tman  •  Mar 13, 2009 @1:03 am

    Don’t you find it funny that Mark was replacing his oven?

    “This piece of shit oven I have won’t properly top-broil my panini evenly, and goddammit, I want EVENLY MELTED CHEESE. IS THAT SO MUCH TO ASK???”

    That’s hilarious. Your whole point about the empty Whole Foods/Home Depot is irrelevant because there wouldn’t be the supply for him to replace the oven in the first place if it wasn’t for people like Mark WHO JUST WANT AN EVENLY MELTED PANINI FOR GODSAKES!!!

  3. c u n d gulag  •  Mar 13, 2009 @7:07 am

    I’ve had similar experiences, though, since I’m unemployed, I rarely go shopping for anything but necessities. The parking lots are empty everywhere you look.
    And how about when you drive by the once thriving strip-malls? Every time you drive by, another store is boarded-up. It’s like seeing someones smile deteriorate week by week because another tooth falls out. Every one of those stores is someones now shuttered dream. A dream that once employed other people to join in on that dream.
    It’s sad. And, I’m afraid to say, we’re not close to hitting the bottom.

  4. wok3  •  Mar 13, 2009 @8:22 am

    I drove near the Los Angeles Harbor, you cannot imagine the amount of, well, everything, that is piling up there.

  5. Donnah  •  Mar 13, 2009 @9:59 am

    I live in Dayton, Ohio, which was a big GM town and fortunately can still rely on Wright-Patterson AFB to keep the city afloat. Manufacturing here is gone, so it’s becoming a depressed area with many job losses.

    That being said, I notice that restaurants are still thriving here. There are still long waits on the weekends and the parking lots are full most nights. Is it because so many of the franchises are offering deep discounts on meals now? Or will we continue to eat out regardless of the economy? I wonder.

    An independently owned coffeehouse here just erased all the prices from the menu board. Sandwiches, specialty coffees, etc, are all “Pay What You Can”. The owner said that he felt that people needed a break and he has faith that things will balance out. During the first few days of this new policy, he said he has ended the days within a few dollars of what he would have made at his regular rate. He said some folks pay less, while others, who feel more solvent, pay a little more.

    It should be good publicity for him. I hope he can keep it going.

  6. D.R. Marvel  •  Mar 13, 2009 @10:13 am

    i “It’s like seeing someones smile deteriorate week by week because another tooth falls out.”

    Capitalist Scurvy?

  7. A Canadian Reader  •  Mar 13, 2009 @11:00 am

    Yes, there’s a scary feeling permeating the air. Personally, I’ve been thinking about the futility of most of what we do/produce for a few years now. It’s frightening.

    Just in case you’re too grossed out to check out what the wingnuts are saying, my favourite fascists over at Moms4SarahPalin are totally poo-pooing the reality-based world’s concern over empty storefronts, foreclosures and the newly homeless (see an interesting article in the NYT about people living in motels…). In their world (south Florida, no less!), the malls are full and everyone’s doing fine.

  8. erinyes  •  Mar 13, 2009 @11:06 am

    The Home Depot and Lowes are certainly slower here in Kissimmee, but over in Swami town (Pinellas), the stores were pretty bustling on my recent visits. I think the reason is, here in K-town, many of the homes are pretty new, and most of the jobs are theme park and service related, but in Pinellas, most homes are older, and so is the population.

    My job took me to Naples this week, a VERY wealthy little town on the west coast of Fla., just north of the ‘glades.Naples is now at the top of the “season”, and things are a bit off in the restaurant and hotel biz, but the cheap eats like Olive Garden, TGIF, etc. are doing fair while Ruth’s Chris is sucking eggs.( although I spent $20 at O.G. for linguini w/ mussels and shrimp; spagetti and meatballs was $15 !)

    We need some people in high places with brains to figure out that the Gulf Stream which lies a scant 4 miles from shore, is the biggest engine on the planet. Tapping the Gulf Stream energy could release us from our petro addiction, produce “green” energy, and create a whole new industry with millions of jobs.
    Perhaps Lockheed Martin could convert their production from weapons of mass death to ocean current power units?
    Naw! that would be too practical, blowing up shit is “funner”………..

  9. moonbat  •  Mar 13, 2009 @12:30 pm

    That’s hilarious. Your whole point about the empty Whole Foods/Home Depot is irrelevant because there wouldn’t be the supply for him to replace the oven in the first place if it wasn’t for people like Mark WHO JUST WANT AN EVENLY MELTED PANINI FOR GODSAKES!!!

    Really? So the fact that one guy wants a new oven to make some evenly melted panini negates the overwhelmingly larger fact that these stores are otherwise empty?

    Sir, are you a wingnut? Because I have often seen this kind of reasoning from wingnuts, where they pick on some obscure fact, that’s irrelevant to the larger matter at hand and think this invalidates it. Keep on thinking that way, friend – I know how to make money off of people like you.

  10. Swami  •  Mar 13, 2009 @12:55 pm

    How they could possibly run it at a profit baffled me.

    Look at the “associates” pay stubs. That should help clear things up.

    A while back when Home Depot’s CEO, Bob Nardelli, was in the news with his 400 million dollar severance package amid criticisms of the deterioration of Home Depots sales and service. I walked into our local HD and saw a large message board that said: “We’re sorry we let you down, and we’ll try harder”…it was signed by all the employees of that Home Depot. I wasn’t sure if the message was intended for Bob Nardelli or Home Depot’s customers, but I found the message to be disgusting, almost a joke. It was akin to a battered wife apologizing to her husband for making him so angry that he had to beat her.
    Home depot has lost its edge in the market place because it doesn’t want to put back money into adequate staffing and payment of employees. I try to avoid Home Depot because getting through checkout in a timely manner is a nightmare.

  11. bill bush  •  Mar 13, 2009 @3:22 pm

    This a.m. I visited a passport office in an NC mega-mall. I circled the 3rd floor and saw only one person with a package/purchase among the 20 or so teens/young adults wandering the clothing/shoe/jewelry/phone area, and only two tables of diners in the food court at 11:15. And there was nobody walking around in most of the shops. In the entire second floor of JCPenney, our $4.97 clearance pair of jeans was one of only two modest purchases going on in menswear, while a woman who loudly announced that she was glad to find a square pillow in housewares also made it clear she’d first been to Wal-Mart, where there were no square pillows. She was buying nothing else. This is a multi-million dollar edifice not taking in enough to pay for the electricity.
    And I learned at Borders Books that there is a big sale on CDs coming up very soon (within the week) because they are cutting back drastically on music inventory. Free downloads, dontcha know. This is the store that used to buzz with disposable income spenders. The Christmas kettle for Salvation Army was constantly being stuffed with money — not coins, either — in past holiday seasons. Things are changing. (sorry for double/goof comment bumblethumbed twice — please edit.)

  12. Crazy for Urban Planning  •  Mar 13, 2009 @4:56 pm

    In planning grad school I learned an astonishing statistic. A person needs 25 square meters of commercial retail space to live on. This means an urban area of 100,000 people would require 2,500,000 square meters of retail space. I haven’t exactly walked around these stores with a ruler, but I’m pretty sure an average town only needs one or two of the “big box” stores. The point is, we are not near the bottom of this economic re-adjustment.

  13. jimbo  •  Mar 13, 2009 @7:59 pm

    I’ve been doing a lot of remodeling work over the past year, and have spent a lot of time in Lowe’s, Home Depot, Expo, etc. As I make it a point to visit at off-hours to avoid the crowds, I haven’t noticed the phenomenon Mark refers to.
    What I HAVE noticed is that in recent months, salespeople have been unusually solicitous; seems I can’t walk 20 feet without somebody accosting me and asking if I need help finding something. And it’s not limited to the home improvement stores.
    Don’t know whether this is mandated from corporate HQ, or is a reflection of workers suddenly fearful for their jobs. But it leaves me wondering whether there might be a fundamental truth underlying this:
    “In a service-based economy, either service sucks, or the economy sucks.”

  14. QrazyQat  •  Mar 13, 2009 @8:33 pm

    Sir, are you a wingnut? Because I have often seen this kind of reasoning from wingnuts, where they pick on some obscure fact, that’s irrelevant to the larger matter at hand and think this invalidates it.

    Forget his “reasoning” (you actually saw some? better perception than I); just look at his last sentence, so long and forceful and yet empty, seeming to be trying to make a point but failing to even make sense. That’s the mark of a wingnut.

  15. moonbat  •  Mar 13, 2009 @9:53 pm

    Swami – I used to work for Bob Nardelli, ages ago, at GE. Not directly, but I was in a few large (hundreds of people) meetings with the guy. He came up through manufacturing, and was well liked, at least at the plant where I was at. Apparently after he left GE – ‘cuz he couldn’t get the top job, now held by Jeff Immelt – he bungled things good at HD, and failed upward to an even shakier post – running Chrysler. Perhaps he should’ve quit while he was ahead. My mood does sour toward the guy when I read of his compensation – hundreds of millions – for these later jobs.

    Regarding the paystubs at Whole Foods – I’ve never seen one, but I can talk about their prices. “Whole Paycheck” is the way many people refer to WFM.

  16. maha  •  Mar 13, 2009 @10:14 pm

    Home depot has lost its edge in the market place because it doesn’t want to put back money into adequate staffing and payment of employees. I try to avoid Home Depot because getting through checkout in a timely manner is a nightmare.

    I don’t remember exactly how long it has been since I was in a Home Depot — at least three years, I’d say — but I was so rattled and disgusted at the experience I vowed never to set foot in one again.



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