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San Francisco to Chain Stores: Get Out!

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"Whether you're on the road or just cruising around town, your favorite McDonald's menu items are never far away." So boasts the McDonald's Restaurant Locator, and a glance at a distribution map of franchises in the United States proves the point. Population centers burn brightly with the Golden Arches; even the sparsely populated Western states are adequately supplied by the nation's 14,000-plus fleet of McDonald's.

That reach is astounding, but not exceptional. Four out of five Americans live within 20 miles of our 11,000 Starbucks; 30 percent of American grocery shopping occurs at our 4,500 Wal-Marts. The most familiar element of the American landscape - excepting green highway signs and certain brands of automobiles - might be Subway, which has over 25,000 U.S. locations.

You could be forgiven for thinking, as Simon and Garfunkel sang, "Each town looks the same to me." From Juneau to Jacksonville, we Americans share, as much as anything, a common commercial experience, a fractal pattern of retail at once comforting and mind-numbing. It stretches the powers of the imagination to think that eating and shopping options in the American city were once as distinct as fingerprints. The shift from mom-and-pops to chains has been one of the defining shifts in American cultural life, and counter-protests have been largely futile, with opponents pegged as sentimentalists standing in the way of progress and low prices.    



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