Thanksgiving vacation last year took me to Seattle, an all-around great town with some notable independent pro dealers like Dunn Lumber, Blackstock Lumber, Alki Lumber and Hardware, and Compton Lumber, as well as several Lumbermens yards (a Lanoga company now operating as a division of Pro-Build) and 12 Home Depots operating in the suburbs farther from Jet City central. The Seattle weather was appropriately cold and wet, and before I even hit the Space Needle or went to see Jimi Hendrix's smashed guitars at the Experience Music Project, I dutifully strolled down to 221 Pike St., to the original Starbucks opened in 1971, and ordered up a double tall non-fat latte.

Even today, it's an inauspicious place with a small, hand-carved wooden sign fronting a roughly 500-square-foot coffee shop—I walked by it twice looking for the big green and white letters and the shelves filled with CDs and assorted retail revelry. Of course, Starbucks has come a long way in the past 36 years. As of November 2006, the coffee company operates or licenses 8,836 locations in the United States and another 3,604 abroad—and a full 2,199 of those locations opened up in 2005.

Illustration: Christopher Vorlet That's great news if you have Starbucks stock or an addiction to $3 double tall non-fat lattes, but it's not so great if you happen to own and operate an independent coffee shop basically anywhere in the country. So says Tom Mulligan, the owner of Magpie's Newsstand Cafe in Durango, Colo., who was interviewed for Independent America, a documentary film exploring the future of independent businesses in the United States that screened on Kevin Sites' “In the Hotzone” Yahoo News blog.

Independent America film-makers Hanson Hosein and Heather Hughes do a great job chronicling the fate of the mom-and-pop store in America, in part revealing the contradiction among consumers who don't want big boxes in their communities but then turn around and drive to the next town to ring up hundreds of dollars at discount big box superstores. They also point out that Starbucks, Wal-Mart, and even The Home Depot all came from humble, entrepreneurial beginnings just like any other business in America.

Sure, these companies can be predatory and have become huge corporate machines, but (within reason) there's nothing illegal or immoral about that. We're all out to make a buck, and while I laud the industry standouts that strive to do more than simply grab cash, I can't argue that a business model based solely on growth and profit is a bad thing. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that The Home Depot is one of the best things to have happened to the construction supply industry. Without the boxes, I doubt many of us would have ever trended to the pro-only format. Our notion of value-added services might begin and end with a contractor desk. Imagine telling Pulte that the truss packages were late because there was a homeowner run on garden hoses back at the yard. Competition makes everyone better. That's just capitalism.

Before all the letters start rolling in to PROSALES arguing to put yours truly inside a big box, let me add one anecdotal caveat. For Christmas last year, I bought myself a cappuccino and espresso maker that paid for itself in two weeks if you factor in my $6-a-day Starbucks habit. My store of choice was Cole Valley Hardware, an independent retailer with three locations that has served San Francisco since 1920 and has successfully lobbied (along with other parties) to keep The Home Depot outside of city limits.

Chris Wood Regardless, I'm going to stand by my position on big boxes even as I sip my mom-and-pop lattes and keep my tax dollars in the community. It may be consumer contradiction, but hey, that's just capitalism.

EDITOR'S NOTE: More information on Independent America can be found on the film's official Web site,

Chris Wood is executive editor for PROSALES. 415.315.1241 x307 E-mail: [email protected]