Ryan Chartrand

Farmer’s Market is one of my favorite events in San Luis Obispo. It’s definitely the best place in town to get fresh produce, and the local music and barbecued food are amazing. But best of all, it’s the one night a week when all of San Luis Obispo shuts down at an actually reasonable hour.

However, there is a downside to Farmer’s Market; amid all the colorful booths, pungent aromas and smiling children, a frightening trend can be seen peeking out from behind the shiny, glass windows of downtown businesses.

It’s called the chain store.

But what does a small-town tradition like Farmer’s Market have to do with a sudden onslaught of new chain clothing stores like Urban Outfitters or Banana Republic? The truth is – it’s during traditional community events, like Farmer’s Market, that the giant chain stores become most noticeable.

For example, some friends and I were strolling through Farmer’s Market a couple weeks ago, enjoying the cool night air and dining on tasty pulled-pork sandwiches, when we decided to check out the sale at Pottery Barn. As we ascended the well-lit, fortress-like steps of the new shopping complex, I realized that this was the first time I’d actually been up to see the new shopping center. So I told my friends, “I usually don’t come up here because it reminds me too much of home.”

“Oh, this is very Southern California, isn’t it?” one of my friends replied.

Then it hit me: Over the past three years, the downtown area here has gradually morphed into a suburban track mall. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a proud San Diegan, but I chose to attend Cal Poly because the surrounding town was different from the over-populated land of mass-consumerism in which I was reared.

Yes, it’s true that now people anticipating the next half-yearly sale at Abercrombie and Fitch don’t have to waste gallons and gallons of precious, over-priced gas to make the devoted-shopper’s pilgrimage down to Santa Barbara.

But after the initial giddy hysteria of being able to buy over-priced clothes (while ogling at really hot, naked A&F models) subsides, one might start to wonder about the effect these new stores are having on the less popular mom n’ pop shops that originally gave the downtown area its country charm.

Once, while walking through the heart of downtown, I quickly tallied up the number of new businesses I saw that hadn’t been there the year before. It added up to an astounding 15, half of which were recognizable chains. Compare that to the usual one or two new stores that tend to pop up each year, and it starts to make one wonder what the heck is going on down there? Is it just me, or is Southern California following in my migratory footsteps? Maybe there’s something in the water. That something, unfortunately, is called profit.

It must be difficult for stores like Lucky Lulu’s and Fanny Wrappers to compete with commercial powerhouses like Express and Victoria’s Secret. The sheer brand name pull probably rakes in a large annual profit from both tourists and locals, alike. Plus, these chain stores are all run by their respective national headquarters, which provide unlimited access to mass advertising campaigns and 24-hour costumer service hotlines.

However, these extra bonuses have nothing to do with product originality or quality. While shopping at a chain store might offer more variety in color and cut, the products are almost guaranteed to be made with a cheaper and less durable material, and there are probably going to be about 100 other people walking the Cal Poly campus with the same shirt on.

It’s astonishing to think that, in a city that prides itself on a no-growth policy and fought tooth-and-nail to prevent construction of “The Market Place,” chain stores are starting to takeover the cherished downtown area. If local residents and students really want to protect their community assets, they need to start at the heart – the source of the community’s economic lifeblood.

The mom n’ pop shops downtown might not be as impressive as the larger chain stores – and maybe their gaucho pants don’t come in as many shades or sizes – but it’s the smaller stores that give this town its character and its individuality; because without them, San Luis Obispo would be just another Southern California city.

Amy Asman is a journalism senior, spotlight editor and Mustang Daily staff writer.

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