- Sales and Celebrations: Retailing and Regional Identity in Western New York State, 1920–1940
Elvins's book is part of a growing body of historical scholarship that interrogates the lived experience of consumer society in the twentieth-century United States. Beginning where William Leach's Land of Desire (1993) left off, Elvins seeks to complicate "top-down" narratives of the homogenization of American consumer culture into a national mass market. Taking her cue from Lizabeth Cohen's early work on consumption in Chicago, Elvins examines consumption on the local level in two upstate New York cities, Buffalo and Rochester, in the pivotal decades of the 1920s and 1930s in order to argue for the persistence of local variation in consumption patterns. Unlike Cohen, however, Elvins's analysis focuses on the business of retailing, particularly department stores and grocery stores, rather than the behavior of consumers. She demonstrates the persistence of the local in chapters focused on department stores' public relations outreach to local communities; buyers' roles as mediators between New York City manufacturers and upstate consumer tastes; and retailers' attempts to alleviate the effects of the Depression by spurring local consumer spending. Underlying her argument in all of these chapters is location, location, location: because local retailers are tied physically and financially to their communities, she argues, they necessarily have a greater social and political investment in those communities.
Elvins's work is most interesting, however, when she interrogates the category of local business directly, as she does in a chapter on the chain store question. She rightly points out how blurry the line between chains and local business could be, as she describes how local grocery stores fought the chain store menace by chaining up themselves, from joining distribution groups like IGA to assuming a regional chain identity as the Red and White grocers. I found myself wishing that Elvins had made the definition of local business a [End Page 540] principal focus of her argument as a whole, particularly in those chapters focused on the department store. Early in her story, Elvins enticingly mentions the fact that two of the area's leading department stores were already part of the Associated Merchants chain of New York City before the 1920s. Yet she persists in treating these stores as local businesses in her argument, same as any other, largely because they maintained their local identity and some managerial independence. Here, it seems to me, Elvins lost an interesting opportunity to move beyond the location argument to engage localism as a cultural ideal that was salient to many consumers, then and now. Apparently, the visibility of the chain store was more of an issue for consumers than its existence as an organizational form. And Elvins's retailers, both local and chain, constantly competed to prove their allegiance to the local community. But without examining those consumers and the choices they made—or at least interrogating retailers' own obsession with being seen as local—there is no way to understand the larger cultural meaning of this fixation on local consumption that is so evident in Elvins's story.
Choosing to focus on retailers rather than consumers does not, in point of fact, give Elvins a truly "bottom-up" portrait with which to rebut Leach's larger argument regarding the homogenization of American consumer culture. Showing the persistence of local retailing as a business form refutes the idea that chain stores homogenized the retailing industry during this period. Yet Leach does not hinge the creation of a mass market on the dominance of chains; he merely points to chain stores as one among many factors ranging from the consolidation of distribution networks, to display practices, to advertising. In fact, Leach uses the same organizational form that dominates Elvins's narrative—the department store—as the preeminent example of the rise of the mass market in the early twentieth century, based on the organizational reach of its distribution network and volume sales, regardless of its ownership structure...