Saturday, August 4, 2018

Cambria, California: A Town Without Chain Stores and Fast Food Restaurants,or the Downside of "A Stop in Willoughby"

One of the main reasons for our trip to California was to see the Hearst Castle. It is definitely worth the price of admission.
Our hotel reservations were in Cambria. We had spent a couple of days in Monterey before driving to Cambria. When we arrived I was in the mood for some coffee. We checked in, and I asked if there was a McDonald’s or something similar nearby. The clerk looked shocked. He said, “We don’t allow fast food restaurants in Cambria. We also don’t allow big box stores or chain stores of any kind.”
We wound up getting $5 coffees ($6 with tip) at one of the stores they do allow.
A few years ago we had an abandoned school in our neighborhood. The city wanted to sell the land and accepted some proposals for the sale. One was for a grocery store that was considering relocating. That proposal would have required tax incentives and was greeted with great enthusiasm from many in the neighborhood. As it turned out, that proposal was just a ploy to get the store’s landlord to the negotiating table to lower its lease. The other proposal was from Walmart, which wanted to put one of its neighborhood markets on the land. The store Walmart proposed would have been smaller than the grocery store, and Walmart asked for no incentives. Walmart would even have taken the school building down. The shit hit the fan. After the smoke cleared, Walmart withdrew its proposal. A few years later the city took the building down at taxpayer expense, and the property remains unsold.
The anti-Walmart people won.
I wish everyone who opposes chains could spend some time in Cambria. At first glance, the town is charming. But it’s also expensive. It’s all well and good to limit competition, I suppose, if you’re a shop or restaurant owner, but it’s not too great when you’re on the paying end of the equation. Our afternoon meal the first day cost $30. I had fish and chips (with coleslaw instead of the chips); Dan had a taco salad. We both had water.
I told myself this was a vacation and we should enjoy it, but the final straw was breakfast, which was nothing special and cost $38. We decided to find a grocery store, which was not as easy as you’d think. We finally asked a guy who was working on recycling bins. He directed us to the store, which did not face the street. We bought some groceries and deli food and made do for that evening and the next morning.
We left Cambria and headed to our next stop, Pismo Beach. Along the way I spotted a McDonald’s and a Burger King at Morro Bay. We stopped and had lunch at Burger King with coupons I’d brought along for an emergency. It cost $12.36 for both of us, and we had soft drinks. We hadn’t planned to stop at Morro Bay, but while we were there, we drove around and spent some time on the piers watching fish being cleaned on the boats they came in on and the seagulls feeding on the waste tossed overboard. It was a charming afternoon.
To bring our total trip costs down, we ate at Burger King (using coupons) three more times on the trip. Breakfast cost close to $8, which I found much more palatable than $38.

          I’ve read and written about some of the “back to a golden era” books, and I doubt there ever really was a “golden era.” Even during the “golden era,” people complained that the (now bankrupt) A&P stores were driving mom and pop grocery stores out of business (as documented by Marc Levinson in his 2012 book, The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America). Before that people complained about catalog companies like (the now troubled) Sears and (the now bankrupt) Montgomery Ward, and before that door-to-door peddlers. It seems people like to complain about things—even things that make their lives easier and cheaper.

          “A Stop at Willoughby,” a 1960 Twilight Zone episode, tells the tale of a man, harried by modern life (nearly 60 years ago), who visits Willoughby, a stop on his commuter train ride home. Willoughby is a town that evokes the good old days (as seen from 1960—an era some folks nowadays look back on as the good old days). Eventually the man decides to stay in Willoughby. Spoiler alert: It turns out Willoughby exists only in the harried commuter’s mind. His stop in Willoughby is a fatal exit from the moving train.

          I wonder if the people who complain about how degraded America has become because of fast food chains, Walmart, and all the modern (competitive) businesses that are available today and long for their own personal Willoughbys ever think what life would really be like if everything were local and expensive.

          Perhaps they should be required to spend some time in Cambria.

© 2018 Larry Roth

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