Wednesday, April 12, 2006
The town of Nantucket, Mass., voted last week to ban chain stores from its historic downtown. Once an isolated whaling port (see H. Melville, Moby-Dick), Nantucket is now one of the world’s most exclusive and expensive international resort destinations. (The typical home is worth more than $2 million.) Its downtown preserves some of the best examples anywhere of early 19th century architecture and rates an 11 on a 1-10 quaintness scale.
When Ralph Lauren moved onto Main Street last year (paying a reported $6 million for the site), however, residents were mobilized. The specter of the local ice cream shops, coffee houses, and woolen stores being replaced by upscale chains available elsewhere certainly would have impaired Nantucket’s unique ambience. (Chains are still free to locate elsewhere on the island.) Snobs like me admire old downtowns such as those of Annapolis, Md., and Carmel, Cal., which discourage franchises and retain local charm.
But Nantucket’s ban can also be seen as the imposition of one group’s values – 480 year-round residents voted at the town meeting last week – over the market-driven forces of the summer tourists who support the economy and the seasonal workers who paint the clapboards and clear restaurant tables.
Is the ban justified on social economic grounds? No. Am I happy Nantucket passed the ban? Yes, even if I can’t really afford to vacation there.