My brother, who is an assistant professor of economics, and I were talking one night.  The conversation went through the usual range of topics for siblings: baseball, hockey, etc.  I had made some off-handed observation about where I live and my brother said something that struck terror into my heart:

“You should write that down.  I have some folks that might like to hear it.”

So here we are.  An airline pilot who has never written anything more interesting than a technical manual attempting to find two creative brain cells to rub together and express an idea in a field I know nothing about.  Good thing I’m a pilot.  Where we lack expertise, we make up for it in raw, unfounded confidence.

I live in Small Town Middle America(™).  You know: the kind of town that has more churches than restaurants and more gun shops than churches.  I married a wonderful woman from here whom I love dearly and, for reasons I’ll never understand, loves me, too.  Her family is locally famous: her grandfather and his brother owned several apple orchards and a successful farmer’s market/general store.  Her grandmother worked for the county archives and is well versed in the history of the place.  I love sitting around what was formerly the storage shed of the orchard listening to my wife, her aunts, uncles, and grandparents tell stories of growing up.  

When her grandparents sold the market, they  also sold the orchard so they could live comfortably in retirement.  What once was a peaceful orchard is now a subdivision, filled with McMansions and every street cleverly (at least in the developer’s mind) named after varieties of apples.  Big Box Store moved in and some small businesses shut down.  You know what?  There’s a certain convenience to the big box stores.  You can get your milk, eggs, underwear, picture frames, dancing Santa statues, and fishing rods all in one place now.  Widgets and Whatsits galore.  Then other Big Boxes moved in to try and capture a piece of the pie.

The phrase I said that got me into this mess was, “I love watching markets evolve.”  What I meant was this: yes, Big Box has made things more convenient, but it also took away a lot of the individuality of each aspect of the market.  Big Box has what is generously called a bakery, but all the food is prepackaged and realistically, you have very limited choice in variety.  Where did the market for specialty breads go?  Did it die?  Does it only live on in nostalgia? 

For years, I was told, there were no real bakeries in town.  But then, slowly, like moss growing after a volcanic eruption, they started to show up again.  People still demanded that experience and those products.  Eventually, someone was willing to cater to that niche.  

Today in town, we have bakeries full of delicious things, outdoor shops that offer specialty gear and expert advice, craft breweries specializing in the mundane but also the weird, wild, and wonderful (two weeks ago I had frankincense beer; it smelled like a funeral but tasted delicious!).  Do they pull in the kind of business that the Big Boxes do?  Not by a long shot.  They don’t need to; they fill the wants of people.

To me, it’s kind of like the rainforest.  You have the big trees that soak up lots of sun, but there’s still enough room for everyone else in the ecosystem.  The demand didn’t disappear.  Suppliers just evolved to face a new reality.  I can’t help but think that Charles Darwin and Adam Smith are both somewhere shedding a tear of happiness.  


Dennis Murphy is a professional airline pilot with a background in aviation safety, accident investigation, and causality. When he’s not flying 737s, he enjoys the company of his wife, their dogs, cats, and bees.