When I was young, I would often walk into the town of Sebastopol after my high school let out. After visiting the book stores, I’d go to a burger joint called Supreme Burger and have, appropriately enough, a burger called a “Supreme Burger” or a deep-fried burrito, which we now call a chimichanga. Sometimes a friend, who was in a bit of a financial bind, would accompany me and I’d buy him a burger too.
After I graduated, I remained loyal to Supreme Burger. It was run by a woman, and her daughter and the mother was amiable. But then something happened. A Burger King opened up the street. I was excited, mainly because I didn’t understand the economics of business. To me, the new Burger King indicated that Sebastopol was entering a period of modernization. But the owner of Supreme Burger, who clearly did understand business economics, knew what was going on. Burger King meant the beginning of local businesses being squeezed out.
That’s not to say that Burger King was the first chain to enter Sebastopol. There was a Safeway, a Sprouse Ritz, a Rexall Drugs, and others that all seemed to cohabitate with the other businesses in Sebastopol. But Burger King was different.
Before long, Supreme Burger was sold, and the food served by the new owner wasn’t as good. And then a chain called Tuttle’s Drugs opened, and Peace Pharmacy closed. The last time I looked, Pease had been replaced by a playhouse. I believe that Rexall also closed. A Whole Foods Market, which is now owned by Amazon, now sits where Tuttle’s used to be.
These chain-stores changed the community of Sebastopol and siphoned money away from the community to where their corporate offices were. Along the way, they also siphoned away Sebastopol’s character, which seems to have ridden out of town along with the “Train Down Main”, and it’s now far more generic than it once was.
I’ve been thinking about what happened to Sebastopol lately because I’m seeing the beginning of something similar in Hoi An. A VinMart, a store similar to a 7/11, has opened a few blocks away from my home. This is the third VinMart that I know of in the city. I shop there, encouraged by a friend who reminds me that they charge westerners the same price as locals, whereas if I buy from locally owned stores, I pay more. (The solution is that I ask my friend to buy things for me, and we get the lower price.)
I’m not alone. Every time that I go into that VinMart, it’s busy. Not just westerners but also locals shop there, apparently a lot. Part of the draw is that VinMart stocks things that I can’t buy at any other stores, such as my razor blades. And part of it is that we as a species love the new and shiny.
But what does VinMart’s success portend for local store owners? Most of the stores that I see here are what I call owner-occupant, meaning that they have a store in the front of their house, and they live in the back or on the second floor. I fear that what I’m witnessing is exactly what I saw three to four decades ago in Sebastopol — the decline of locally owned stores.
Before too long we’ll see a Starbuck’s here, or three. There’s already one about 45 minutes away in Da Nang, and I’m sure that the market here is too enticing to ignore. About the same distance away is a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and far closer is a Burger King. There’s no McDonald’s nearby yet, or Sizzler (I was very surprised to see a Sizzler in Bangkok).
Hoi An is, after all, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and tourism appears to be its central industry. As the big companies move in, what happens to those people running their businesses out of their homes?
That’s not to say that all the locally owned businesses will fail, nor did they in Sebastopol. But the stakes here are rapidly getting higher.