Editor's Notes


True North Perspective
Vol. 6, No. 3 (261)
Friday, January 28, 2010

The Sign Remains the Same (at least for now)

Farewell to the Glebe Apothecary:

One small step on the road to monopoly

By Geoffrey Dow
Managing Editor, True North Perspective
Originally published at Edifice Rex Online

One of the comforting myths about capitalism — one that has the benefit of, sometimes, even being true — is that investment is about creating wealth, not just amassing it. And so we tell each other inspiring stories about the Steve Jobs of the world far more often than we do the cautionary tales of the Bernard_Madoffs or Conrad Blacks.

The reality, though — and more now than since the Gilded Age — is that most investment has little to do with creating wealth and almost everything to do with consolidating it (or stealing it outright). There are many more Blacks and Madoffs than there are Jobs.

I got a pointed reminder of this just after Christmas while cycling up Bank Street. I spotted a sign familiar from my first time living in Ottawa, Prospero the Book Company, which I remembered as having been a very good independent book store back around 1990. I decided to park my bike and pay a visit.

What I found inside was a non-descript store with generic shelves displaying generic stock, little different from a Chapters mall outlet stuck between a Fairweathers and a Circuit City. And many of the books on display carried familiar-looking orange stickers, which should have given the game away right there.

I cruised the uninspiring shelves for a few minutes, then made a snap decision to pick up John le Carré's Our Kind of Traitor (review forthcoming). The woman at the cash asked whether I had an irewards card and I realized why this looked so much like (almost) any other bookstore in Canada.

"I thought you were an independent company," I said.

The woman shook her head. "No, we sold out to Coles — let's see, my son's 26 now, he was three then — 23 years ago!" (I wish I could say that I cancelled my purchase in favour of a side-trip to the genuinely independent Perfect Books, but inertia had its way, even if I felt a bit like I'd been taken in by a confidence game.)

Not quite a lie, in an era of conglomerate mansions housing many rooms, but the name and sign outside, Prospero the Book Company, was certainly misleading, since there was nothing inside to distinguish the store from its corporate siblings. The name lives on but its purchase by a conglomerate has certainly diminished its reason for being.

I thought little more about it until I read about the sale of the Glebe Apothecary in the January 20 edition of Ottawa This Week, and was reminded of the ongoing strip-mining of the real economy by the same corporate behemoths who recently came close to knocking over the entire western economic system.

And another one bites the dust

"Pharmacy giant Shoppers Drug Mart has purchased the Glebe Apothecary". The story inside went on to explain that The Glebe Apothecary is was an independent drug store that it not only dispensed medications, but even prepared some of them in-house. Its four aisles provided little room for groceries or cosmetics or magazines, but its staff was friendly and knowledgeable, its few shelves well-stocked and its prices competitive with, and sometimes cheaper than, those you'd find at the giant Shoppers outlet a few blocks away.

Ah yes, Shoppers. The elephant among Canada's drug-store chains. There's one located a few blocks north of the Apothecary and another opening soon just across the Rideau Canal to the south. A five minute walk in one direction, maybe 15 in the other.

And apparently one small, independent competitor between two superstores was one competitor too many for the acquisitive brain-trust behind the wannabe monopoly at Shoppers' headquarters.

Well, not quite.

Shoppers' spokeswoman Lisa Gibson advises that Shoppers' private label Life Brand products will be introduced to the store's limited shelf-space, which puts the lie to poor Paul Davies' assertion that, "... the product assortment will remain the same."

Deliberate falsehood or mistaken optimism, the result is that less than two weeks since the sale was announced, The Glebe Apothecary's customers have been lied to and they are about to see their options as consumers diminished. The "product assortment" will most assuredly not remain the same.

Beneath the surface, of course, are other changes besides a reduction in consumer choice available in the neighbourhood. With the (presumably) local ownership out of the picture, profits that might have been recirculated locally will now flow out and away towards corporate headquarters, executive bonuses, shareholder dividends and, maybe, towards the banks that financed the purchase of an existing business in the first place.

All of which leads to the problem — or one of them — of bigness. Like the former Prospero, while the sign remains the same, The Glebe Apothecary no longer exists in a meaningful way. The shell may still be around in another 26 years, but it could also disappear at any moment and for any reason, even if it is making money.

Shoppers could have a change in corporate strategy; it might make some bad investments; it might just decide that it would be more profitable to "serve" this particular area with two large stores rather than with the two big/one small mix it has now.

I realize that, by itself, the fate of one small neighbourhood store isn't that significant, but I think it serves as a useful illustration of the cannibalistic nature of late-period capitalism.

Buying an existing business and making it a generic part of larger chain might be "efficient" from a corporate point of view, and I suppose it rewards the former owners financially, but it doesn't add anything to the common good — at very best, it merely doesn't detract from it.

You can argue that this is just the nature of capitalism, but if so, there is something wrong with the system itself. Wrong morally, but also pragmatically over the long term. The system isn't sustainable if it spends all its energy buying up existing businesses rather than creating new ones. It can hide the bankruptcy for a while — maybe a long while — through a sort of slash-and-burn technique of forever moving into foreign markets, but the world itself is finite and sooner or later there will be nothing and no one left to buy.