The recent news that the development of Costco is delayed, and may possibly not open in time for this coming Christmas shopping season,was sad news for a lot of people. Not me. Never me. I've never been to a Costco, I've never had any desire to go to one, so I'm not really the person to celebrate the idea of one opening in Guelph. Although by necessity I do patronize big box stores, but there is something about them that strikes me as unsettling: I've been to a Wal-Mart in Ontario, and I've been to a Wal-Mart in Indiana, and do you know what the aesthetic difference is between the two is? Neither do I.
When I arrived in Guelph during pre-Wal-Mart times, there was a lot of variety in Guelph, and by variety, I mean shops and business that I hadn't seen or patronized before. Maybe I was sheltered, or maybe I was just used to chains, chains and more chains, but in those days it seemed that Guelph was an oasis. Looking back, it's almost as if Wal-Mart opened a little known, unseen doorway and propped it open, allowing other brands to follow it in the side. That's not entirely fair, and that's not to say several chains hadn't set up shop already, and indeed we know there were, but a post-Wal-mart Guelph just feels, to borrow a term, less special.
Examples? I remember a comic book store called Collage that was based out of what now is Bobby O'Brien's, it was completely dingy, the building looked like it was threatening to fall apart, but there was enough floor space for what seemed like thousands of comics and other collector bric-à-brac, it even had a small branch store at Stone Road Mall. I can't remember the name of the store, but there was a shop on Carden Street that was solely dedicated to selling new and used action fugures. At a store called Walt's Retro Scene I was able to find a copy of the 1988 sci-fi movie Alien Nation when HMV, Cinema One and Zellers has all failed me. And then, for actual theatrical viewing, there was the down and dirty Three Star Cinema on Woodlawn, which had cheap admission and even cheaper popcorn.
Of course, not everything I loved about Guelph is gone. Macondo and The Bookshelf remain, as does the Dragon. There's Wyndham Arts, Market Fresh, Planet Bean (times three), the bizarely named Hockey Sushi and RU Serious restaurants, and a thousand other independent, locally-owned shops and restaurants, and more spring up all the time. Great Guelph events and festivals still live on, as does the DIY, indie spirit of our arts & culture scene that has served as an inspiration to so many for so long. Then why does all this excitement over something as banal and ordinary as a Costco bother me so?
Good question, and I'm honestly not 100 per cent sure of the answer myself, but I think it goes something like this: Guelph, while always being a little bifurcated in terms of the suburban townies and the urbanites along the downtown/university corridor, things seem to be leaning a little more in the favour of the former and not the latter. That's a little scary to me because I've been down that road and it ends with a town losing all sense of character and becoming, in essence, a bedroom community, basically a place where your bed and TV is. If everything here is basically the same as everywhere else, what's the point of coming to Guelph? What sets us apart? I find it fascinating that people come to Guelph, and it must be in part because of the culture here, and then, when they arrive, they start complaining about the way the city supports that culture, whether it's the activism, the arts scene or whatever, presumably some of the elements that drew them here to begin with.
Of course. all that has nothing to do with Costco, which, by many accounts seems to be a reasonable and responsible employer. There's also some logic in saying that if we can offer a service here that's offered by the same company in Cambridge, then we can keep that money spent here in town (in spite of the fact that lion's share of the profits go to the head office in the U.S.). Still, I fear in the struggle to assemble as many big boxes as possible in the plazas around town, we might lose our sense of individual uniqueness and thus look like every town in southern Ontario, and then what's the point of being Guelph?