Intersections: Breaking from chain-owned businesses can be tough

In 2006, a British comedian named Dave Gorman decided to take a coast-to-coast road trip through 17 states to see if it was possible to travel across the United States without using a corporate-owned or chain business throughout his entire journey.

That means hotels, restaurants and the most challenging category — gas stations.

The road trip, which Gorman began in Coronado, Calif. and ended in Savannah, Ga., became a documentary titled “America, Unchained,” a search to find and sustain himself on the places that defined the American entrepreneurial spirit, but that were almost on the verge of completely disappearing.

Except for one moment of indiscretion, Gorman managed to make his trek across the United States in a second-hand 1970 Ford Torino station wagon that had more than 100,000 miles on it and broke down a few times, completely and rather proudly relying on independent businesses.

More intriguing than Gorman actually managing to complete the mission was the glimpses the documentary provided into the lives of the ordinary people impacted by the “chaining” of America.

As I watched Gorman drive across America, I remembered my own drives through California to Oregon and the well-traveled journey from Los Angeles to Las Vegas that every Southern Californian is almost in a sense required to partake in to gain some cred.

In the spaces between the two cities, there is nothing but fast-food chains for hundreds of miles, shopping centers full of recognizable brand names that can be seen in the distance while you're on the freeway and those fashion outlets you're tempted to stop at, just for a little while.

The only time I remember ever pumping gas from a non-chain, independent station for the more than 10 years I've been driving, was on an unmarked road in Oregon, just after crossing the California border.

The reality we are living in today has little room for independent stores and businesses. The reality is that I am part of a generation who thinks that seeing a Starbucks in a city means I've reached modern civilization. Seeing that familiar logo used to give me a sense of security, the feeling that I had reached somewhere that was — for lack of a better word — normal and even safe. And I don't even make a regular habit of going there.

But that all began to change when a pet store within walking distance of my house, with a never-ending array of organic, natural dog and cat food and knowledgeable staff that I knew personally, went out of business because PetSmart moved in next door. These days I begrudgingly use PetSmart whenever I absolutely need to, but feel the ghost of my beloved pet store lingering every time I enter those sliding doors.

After watching “America, Unchained,” I began thinking about the possibility of going months, perhaps a year, without patronizing chains. Although it sounds like a difficult task, I feel rather lucky that Glendale and La Crescenta boast enough local shops to make carrying out such an endeavor pretty easy.

According to the Glendale Chamber of Commerce, “Glendale remains a classic residential 'hometown' energized by a majority of the chamber's members – small businesses” — and that's completely true.

I've written about my love of Conrad's restaurant here before, a place so homegrown and frankly magical, that I almost feel like I'm being transported to another time when I eat there.

But there's other places, too. A new favorite is C Plus, a 24-hour, punk-rock coffee shop with a fantastic atmosphere and enough amazing coffee to make you never want to visit a chain again. Then there's Laura's Corset Shoppe, with customer service so great, you'll forget about Victoria and her secret rather quickly.

Of course, I'm just scratching the tip of the iceberg here. I'd love to hear your best suggestions for executing “Glendale, Unchained.”


LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New America Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at

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