It’s Sunday morning in Union Square, Somerville, located some twenty minutes by bus from downtown Boston. Should I get breakfast at Dunkin’ Donuts, or at Union Square Donuts, which has hazelnut donuts? Should I get groceries at Target, or at Capone, a local deli? Should I get my prescription filled at Rite Aid or at….then I realized it is almost impossible to find a local, independently-owned pharmacy as an alternative.

Union Square, the oldest neighborhood in Somerville, has few chain stores and many small, diverse, local businesses. Nearby Davis Square, which has the only subway stop in Somerville, has many chain stores, and a livelier shopping and nightlife scene. Yet, which is the more “successful” neighborhood? Does “success” mean having a stronger business and commercial environment that typically attracts chain businesses, even if this means pricing out local, smaller stores because of higher rents? Or does “success” mean a diverse community with a strong sense of place, where the low commercial rents can accommodate local and pop-up stores, new ideas, and start-ups, though not many large businesses?

We buy silver and Elvis busts! Local shops in Davis Square, Somerville, MA

A Subway's, some local eateries, and an Eat Local sign in Union Square, Somerville, MAThe answer lies somewhere in the middle: the great local versus chain stores debate is much more complex than it first seems, as both types of businesses affect local economies differently.

Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings - Jane Jacobs

Civic institutions, like Union Square Main Streets, encourage people to shop at local, independent stores as a way to boost the local economy, reduce environmental impact, and to highlight a community’s unique identity. Events like the Farmers’ Market, the Fluff Festival, and the Flea Market serve to boost the local economy, and support community branding and placemaking efforts.

Where to get Brazilian food in Union Square, Somerville, MA?

However, a lack of chain stores may also signal an area with relatively poor business conditions and a relatively low population base, conditions that make it unattractive for a chain business. This is particularly important to consider in more isolated, marginalized areas, especially those which are true “food deserts” (areas with low access to fresh, healthy food). Local and independently-owned businesses should also aim above all to offer superior products and quality service, and not just rely on people’s goodwill, nostalgia, and “shop local” efforts.

Chain businesses can bring many immediate and long-term benefits to a community, such as the ability to pay higher rents and taxes, offer consistent inventory and prices, and invest in new construction and remodeling. Chain businesses also have the advantage of economies of scale: a store that is not very profitable, or even one that loses money, can potentially afford to stay open because it is being subsidized by more profitable locations. In some cases, chain stores can attract foot traffic, encourage development of competing and complementary local businesses, and catalyze economic development and revitalization. However, chains also tend to have design and layout requirements that a community may want to discourage (suburban-style setbacks, one-story buildings, and large parking lots in front) and may lead, directly or indirectly, to the closure of local, independently-owned stores – a potentially disastrous scenario if the chain store eventually leaves the area.

Chain stores in Davis Square, Somerville, MA

A suburban-style supermarket next to a cemetery near Union Square, Somerville, MA

Ideally, a community should have a healthy mix of independently-owned local, quality businesses, as well as some revenue-generating chains. Ultimately, though, it all boils down to a simple question: how does a community define economic and social “success?” 

Credits: Images by Rosabella Alvarez-Calderon. Data linked to sources. Many thanks to Mimi Graney (Union Square Main Streets) for her insights on this topic.