The Fountainhead: Retail Apocalypse

The Fountainhead: Retail Apocalypse August 31, 2018

The Fountainhead, part 3, chapter 5

On the main street of a tiny town in rural Ohio, Dominique and Roark are discussing the department store he’s building. He’s always happy to talk about work: he was hired because the owner saw some of his other buildings and liked them, he works at night because it’s a rush job, he expects to be back in New York in another month, and so on.

However, after they’ve been talking for a while, she points out that Roark hasn’t asked her anything: not what she’s doing here or why she came or how long she’s staying. He seems indifferent to her presence, regardless of whether the last time he saw her was yesterday or twenty months ago.

He reacts with typical dismissiveness (“What do you want me to ask you?”), so she informs him that she’s on her way to get married again – and that her husband-to-be is Gail Wynand, the sleazy tabloid publisher:

She saw his eyes. She thought she should want to laugh; she had brought him at last to a shock she had never expected to achieve. But she did not laugh.

… “That’s worse than Peter Keating, isn’t it?” she asked.

“Much worse.”

Dominique asks if he wants to stop her (the implicit subtext being: “give me a reason not to do this”), and he says no. Because he’s oblivious to her unspoken request, she comes right out and says it plainly:

“Roark,” she said. “I want to remain here with you for all the years we might have.”

He looked at her, attentively, waiting.

“I want to live here.” Her voice had the sound of pressure against a dam. “I want to live as you live. Not to touch my money — I’ll give it away, to anyone, to Steve Mallory, if you wish, or to one of Toohey’s organizations, it doesn’t matter. We’ll take a house here — like one of these — and I’ll keep it for you — don’t laugh, I can — I’ll cook, I’ll wash your clothes, I’ll scrub the floor. And you’ll give up architecture.”

…He laughed. She heard, in the sound of it, a surprising touch of consideration for her — the attempt not to laugh; but he couldn’t stop it.

“Dominique.” The way he pronounced the name remained with her and made it easier to hear the words that followed: “I wish I could tell you that it was a temptation, at least for a moment. But it wasn’t.” He added: “If I were very cruel, I’d accept it. Just to see how soon you’d beg me to go back to building.”

Dominique is certain that Roark can’t overcome the hatred of the world (“You’re moving to some terrible kind of disaster”), and she doesn’t want to see him destroyed like that, so she’s making a last-ditch effort to dissuade him. But it was a doomed attempt, and she must have known that. Roark loves work and buildings more than he loves Dominique, and it’s not a close contest. He says her offer didn’t tempt him for even a moment.

You have to wonder, when the two of them finally get together (because of course they do), what kind of relationship are they going to have? Roark has made it clear to Dominique that being with her will always take a back seat to his work. If he’s working late nights, falling asleep at the office and constantly traveling to job sites around the country, when will she even see him?

She doesn’t have a career; she gave up her job as a newspaper columnist and she has no ambition to restart it. It doesn’t seem like they’re going to have kids to raise, because no self-respecting Randian hero wants a family. So how’s she going to fill the hours in a day? Walking alone through their beautiful, empty mansion? Dusting the furniture for the tenth time that day? Lounging on the couch eating bon-bons?

There’s no answer to this in the text, because Ayn Rand isn’t the kind of novelist who considers questions like that. As far as she’s concerned, “I worship your beautiful buildings” is a sufficient reason for Dominique to love him, even though we’ve just seen that he has virtually no interest in her or her life and makes no attempt to persuade her to choose him over other men. He expects to be the passive recipient of her devotion. It seems likely that a Roark-Dominique marriage would end up like Hank Rearden in Atlas Shrugged, whose wife despises him because he’s always at work and cares nothing for her life or her interests.

Here’s another question that gets sidestepped in this chapter: Dominique calls this town a “nameless hole of a place” and implies that, while a five-story department store is nothing next to a skyscraper in New York, it’s a big deal for a place like this. But if this is such a poor and shabby town, what are the store’s long-term prospects? Is this place going to become another of Roark’s white elephants?

This is a question that’s concentrating the minds of merchants across the country right now, in the form of the ongoing American retail apocalypse. Venerable chains like Toys ‘R’ Us and Radio Shack have gone out of business, and others, like Sears, are circling the drain. So-called ghost malls have become a popular subject for photography. Even Christian apocalyptic sites have noticed the trend.

Usually, when we talk about the death of brick-and-mortar retail, the finger of blame gets pointed at e-commerce – especially Amazon. But the whole story is a little more complicated than that. Although Amazon is undeniably huge and growing, it still accounts for only 5% of America’s total retail sales.

Another, bigger part of the answer is that American retail is massively overbuilt. In terms of square footage per consumer, we outstrip the rest of the world by far:

By one measure of consumerist plentitude — shopping center “gross leasable area” — the U.S. has 40 percent more shopping space per capita than Canada, five times more the the U.K., and 10 times more than Germany.

In other words, we’re witnessing the bursting of a mall and retail bubble. Between 1970 and 2015, according to the Atlantic article, the number of malls in the U.S. grew twice as fast as the overall population. Even in an economy driven by consumer spending, there’s just not enough demand to support that many stores. (Ironically, many of the chains going out of business were once considered “category killers” – stores so specialized in one kind of product that they’d never face any serious competition.)

It was inevitable that things would come crashing back to earth at some point – especially in the aftermath of a major recession, and especially as Millennials turn away from shopping as an end in itself and increasingly value experiences over possessions.

Image: An abandoned mall in Chesterfield, VA; via Will Fisher; released under CC BY-SA 2.0 license

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