Two former television journalists are traveling cross country in search of Independent America and are making a documentary about what they find. Hanson Hosein, a former NBC news correspondent who won an Emmy for his coverage of NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, and Heather Hughes, who has worked extensively as a television news producer and anchor, began their journey on the West Coast in May. “More than ever it seems like it’s Independent America vs. Corporate Chain store America,” they note. “We’re hunting for those pressure points.” They’ve vowed to make their entire trip without relying on interstate highways, corporate chain restaurants, motels, or stores. The Hometown Advantage caught up with them for an interview on day 53, just outside of Seward, Nebraska, some 10,800 miles into their journey.
What inspired you to hit the road in search of independent America?
Between Heather and I, we’ve lived in Seattle, Toronto, Montreal, New York, Paris, Tel Aviv, and now, Kelowna, British Columbia. We know what “big” means. And without realizing it, sometime in the last decade, we started establishing relationships with local merchants despite living in the world’s most important cities. We only understood how much we valued these relationships when we moved to our current hometown of 100,000?and when we left our jobs with the Big Box Networks and started our own Mom & Pop media company. Then not only did we want to do business with the independents, we were looking to them for inspiration and courage.
But the true genesis for Independent America came from Oregon. In 2001, we took the slow road from Seattle to Portland, stopping off near the Columbia River for lunch. Lunch was great, and I noticed that there weren’t any chains to be found. I found this incredibly refreshing. So, in 2003, upon my return from a 6-month assignment with NBC covering the war in Iraq, Heather and I decided to get reacquainted with each other and North America. We set off on a road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway. And remembering that Oregon experience, I suggested we only do business with Mom & Pop on our journey. On the Left Coast, this is relatively easy, but it was still a great adventure. I wrote about it for MSNBC.com, and got such a positive response that we thought that perhaps we should try the rest of the country as well. A year and a half later, independently-funded, we set out to look for Independent America. We draw upon John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley” (we’re traveling with our black Lab, Miles), William Least Heat Moon’s “Blue Highways,” and “Fast Food Nation” for inspiration.
How difficult has it been to stick to your rule of not relying on interstate highways, corporate chain restaurants, motels, or stores?
It was much easier in the West to stick to our two rules: no interstates and no chains. The population is sparser out there, so it’s faster on the secondary highways and the chains stick to bigger towns. We were also well-rested compared to when we reached the chain-saturated Northeast. The greatest challenge has been in accommodations: I believe that midrange independent hotels have pretty much disappeared. You can find budget dives that have somehow hung one, and pricey boutique hotels. But, on many occasions we so badly wanted to stay at a Best Western or Hampton Inn because we knew they were clean, inexpensive, took dogs, and had free wi-fi.
Restaurants were a breeze. Who wants to eat at a mediocre fast-food restaurant with all of its processed food when you can go local and get local? That said, the occasional hard stares we got in the South in a local hangout (I’ve got a dark complexion my wife is fair-skinned), made me long for the anonymity of a chain restaurant where no one was there to make friends. And some of the diners we ate at in small, isolated towns were clearly supplied by that giant food distributor Sysco. Otherwise, we had incredible dining experiences, notably at the Colophon Cafe (Bellingham, Wash.) Riley’s BBQ (Blanco, Tex.), the Santa Fe Baking Company and Cafe (Santa Fe, N.M.), Tupelo Cafe (Asheville, N.C.) and Farmers Diner (Barre, Vt.). You can check out photos and Heather’s commentary on these terrific independents on our website.
We bought an extension cord and duct tape at Wal-Mart’s flagship store in Bentonville because we were desperate and their VP was going to be there any minute for the interview. Otherwise we were very good, and got a chance to visit some neat independents along the way?notably the general stores of Vermont. As you can probably guess, it’s really impossible to buy gas from independents, they don’t really exist anymore.
What have been some of the more memorable businesses (or communities or people) you’ve encountered?
Port Townsend, Wash., for their vigorous debate over a recent anti-chain ordinance they passed?a stimulated population with strong arguments both ways. And a lovely town. Pioche, Nevada, population 600, which only has a general store left because everyone is happy to drive 100 miles to Utah to do their shopping at the Big Boxes. We would happily move to Austin, Tex.; Bellingham, Wash; Santa Fe, N.M.; or Durango, Col., for their independent spirit and strong local campaigns. We were utterly charmed by the folks of Marion, Vir., who invited us to take a detour and treated us like royalty as they showed off their revitalized Main Street. And we just left America’s small town July 4th capital, Seward, Neb., where they have a delightful chain-free downtown and a spirited population that takes pride in what they’ve built (and who are also concerned about the impact of a new Supercenter a few miles away).
One of our most memorable experiences was in Utica, New York. We damaged the cord to our portable fridge. My parents had traveled down from Toronto to visit us for a bit, so we decided to exploit a loophole and get them to see whether Home Depot had the cord. It was Sunday, and I was convinced no one else would have such a specialty item. Home Depot didn’t have it. They sent us to this small regional chain, “Herb” Philiipsons (5 stores in upstate NY, which is local according to our definition of chain). We found a sales clerk who was exceptionally helpful and rifled the cord from a new fridge. But he wanted to make sure it was okay with his manager. The manager wasn’t sure because he didn’t know how to charge us for the part. Miraculously, they remembered that they were about to send a defective fridge back to Coleman the next day. So the manager threw our damaged cord into the defective fridge and handed us the new cord. No charge. That was good travel karma meets Mom & Pop service at its best. And we experienced similar treatment in different manifestations across the country.
What’s your assessment of the state of America’s locally owned businesses? Are you more optimistic or pessimistic about their future than you were when you started this journey?
The premise to our project was to find out how Small Business America is doing. If we’d done this a few years ago, things might have been considerably worse. The situation is still dire as Big Boxes continue to pummel smaller competition. But small business is finally fighting back, understanding they have to play to their strengths and find their niche. Austin’s BookPeople and Waterloo Records are good examples of two independents who have triumphed over the chains. Also, as a large portion of Americans get older, they recall an experience of customer service and intimacy that the chains simply can’t provide. Finally, a backlash seems to be growing across the country against homogenized chain retail as many Americans, from the entire political spectrum, realize there’s stability and security in local. So I’m going to say I’m optimistic, but it’s really up to the individual consumer (or citizen as we prefer to call them) to decide how they want to live, and what they want their community to look like. That’s the message of our documentary?small business is crucial, and giving them our business should be the rule, not the exception. If you’ve got a problem with Wal-Mart, just don’t shop there.
You’ve run into some pretty vigorous debates over Wal-Mart in a number of the communities you’ve visited. Have any of these surprised you, or have you found that the issues and battle lines are fairly similar everywhere?
We were surprised by the growing amount of concern against Wal-Mart across the United States. I had originally thought there might be some political motivation to it, given union participation in Wal-Mart battles, and websites like Buy Blue that target Wal-Mart’s Republican leanings. But if you strain away the politics we hear this common refrain: the Supercenters in particular are saturating the market, killing off competition and doing away with consumer choice. The businesses that built towns like conservative, Republican Seward, Neb., are in grave danger?and if those jobs disappear, the net economic impact of Wal-Mart is negative. Suddenly, there’s a lack of local ownership?of local accountability?especially in smaller towns. Of course, in communities where there’s nothing, Wal-Mart brings much needed jobs and shopping. Residents are grateful for a Wal-Mart and say it encourages other businesses to spring up around the store.
And they’re definitely an easy target as the world’s largest company. It’s also become obvious to me that as America completes its transformation from manufacturing to a service economy, many towns are looking to Wal-Mart as a quick and easy form of economic development. There’s a huge difference between middle class manufacturing jobs and what Wal-Mart pays. So bottom line: the universal worry grows when Wal-Mart becomes the only game in town. In larger communities, they can absorb Wal-Mart’s impact far easier.
What happens next in terms of the film? Will it be playing at an independent theater near us?
We’re now on our way home to go through 60 hours of footage. We believe we have a powerful independent film on our hands, which provides a sharp snapshot of Americans in some of the most remote corners of the country, eloquently expressing themselves about an increasingly relevant topic: the importance of “local.” We intend to finish editing by October in time for film festivals like Amsterdam and Sundance (we’ve already received invitations from a number of festivals in some of the towns we covered). In addition, we’re exploring interest from television broadcaster. I’m also going to write a book about our trip. Keep an eye on our website for news. There’s also the potential of a travel series on all those wonderful parts of the country that haven’t been entirely colonized by homogenous chain retail.