A column about chain stores

In 1998, the Broadway Shopping Centre transformed an abandoned building into the retail mecca we know and love – or, more accurately, patronise because of a lack of alternatives – today. Local retailers were terrified that this retail Godzilla would trample on the village charm of Glebe Point Rd either by sending them broke, or destroying the atmosphere by encouraging chain stores to take over the main strip. Badde Manors, it was feared, might make way for Big Macs.

The new “category killer” stores like Kmart, Freedom and Harvey Norman, with large ranges at low prices, posed a huge challenge to local retailers. The Collins Booksellers megastore seemed particularly threatening to Glebe’s uniquely esoteric assortment of bookshops, and locals were especially worried for Gleebooks. To stay in business, even a shop that regularly wins Australian Bookstore of the Year has to peddle large quantities of The Da Vinci Code.

Collins was a 1231 square-metre bookselling behemoth, whose bizarre redundant entrance hall alone could have swallowed most of Gleebooks’ floorspace. Plus it had a café, and an ABC shop to augment its enormous range. Sure, Collins didn’t have quite the same volume of material dealing with the finer nuances of the Hegelian dialectical approach, but that just seemed all the more reason why Gleebooks would be the one to go.

In April, though, Collins was declared bankrupt. Score one to David – although the victory probably belongs just as much to Borders, a bigger Goliath that out-megastored the megastore. A new Dymocks has recently opened in Collins’ place, and with more experience in the Sydney market, they’ll probably do better. Besides, they must have gotten a great deal on the rent.

Even up against Dymocks, though, Gleebooks should continue as strongly as ever thanks to one of the Inner West’s most endearing characteristics. Stores in Balmain, Leichhardt, Glebe and Newtown are generally one-off neighbourhood-style operations because the locals hate chain stores like they hate a badly-made latte.

In particular, they hate the globally ubiquitous Starbucks, where those two things so often go together. The only outlet in the area is in Balmain, and that opened to many protests. As for the rest of the area, I guess their market research found that places that are famous for offering the actual café experience would not welcome a pale imitation, and especially one that insists on charging a premium for its caffeinated dishwater.

When other chain stores have tried to expand here, they’ve learned that local residents often vote with their wallets. Closures of McDonalds’ outlets are as rare as healthy products on their menu were before Super Size Me, but the one in King St Newtown shut many years ago. The students of Sydney Uni also succeeded in fending off a Burger King a few years ago – at their new sport and recreation centre, cheekily enough.

But the chain-store failure that gave me most satisfaction was Glebe Point Rd’s first American fast food outlet, Baskin-Robbins. It just seemed so very wrong when they opened opposite Well Connected a few years ago, but they lasted all of a few months before their hideously bright pink neon lights were turned off for good. It’s a discerning area that can’t sustain a Baskin-Robbins but seems to have an unlimited appetite for North Indian Diners.

There have been a lot of changes in Glebe since Broadway opened, and some businesses have found things tougher. But for the most part, the two very different shopping areas have had a surprisingly comfortable co-existence. It’s been heartening to see in an era of retail consolidation, when the same boring brands are increasingly seen all over the country. And as much as some local residents still worry about the way things are changing, nearly everyone’s benefited from the convenience of Broadway. It’s given us a great place to park when we visit Glebe Point Rd.

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