You Will Miss Bed Bath & Beyond
What we really lose when brick-and-mortar retailers close
On the first day of the rest of my life, I went to Bed Bath & Beyond. It was a rainy spring Monday in 2011, and like generations of optimistic 20-somethings before me, I had just washed up on New York City’s shores with two bulging suitcases and the keys to a tiny, dingy apartment. I had spent most of the previous year saving every cent possible so that I could rent and furnish a bedroom in an unfashionable, relatively cheap part of Manhattan, but before I could unpack my clothes or sleep in the new bed I had scheduled for delivery the next day, I needed to buy everything else: sheets, blankets, pillows, towels, hangers, a hamper.
This shopping trip was the kind of minor domestic milestone that abounds in young adulthood. I had no idea how to navigate anything about New York, and I was looking everywhere for signals that this new life would be viable for me. On that first day, I began the process of figuring all of that out by getting myself to a store that sold affordable bed linens. I looked up the East Side bus routes, found my M2 stop, and watched carefully out the window until the street signs indicated that we were nearing the Queensboro Bridge. Soon I was looking up at a staggeringly enormous Bed Bath & Beyond, complete with a cart escalator between floors. Inside, I assembled such a voluminous pile of textiles that I could not carry my purchases to my apartment and arranged for a delivery later that night. After I paid, I felt so flush with competency that I walked all the way home in the rain.
Twelve years later, my tenure in New York has outlasted not just that Bed Bath & Beyond location, which closed at the end of 2020, but also the business as a whole. On Sunday, after years of financialized chicanery and strategic blunders, the company announced that it had filed for bankruptcy. It plans to close its remaining stores nationwide and stop accepting its signature big blue coupons this week.
I’ll cop to a bit of personal nostalgia for Bed Bath & Beyond, even though it’s not the kind of business that is especially easy to romanticize—retailers of its era and size are among the corporatized chains that helped put many mom-and-pop stores out of business a generation ago. As a place to shop, it had a lot working in its favor. You knew when Bed Bath & Beyond was the right place to go, and you knew what you could expect to find there: extra-long twin sheets for your first college dorm, a housewarming gift that might actually be useful, a citrus juicer and some serving bowls before hosting the year’s first cookout. If you needed a garlic press or a summer-weight duvet, Bed Bath & Beyond had enough versions of either to make you feel like you really had options, but not so many that they all began to feel like meaningless junk, as so often happens online. It was a business responsive to the actual rhythms of daily existence—the cooking, the laundry, the showering—and a convenient place to have nearby.
That nearby part is important. In broad terms, Bed Bath & Beyond’s fall mirrors those of many other once-powerful retailers—Toys “R” Us, Sears, Gap, Kmart, and The Limited among them—that have been forced to close stores or cease operating entirely. The accumulating absences have left many malls and commercial corridors, especially those in more rural or less wealthy areas, to languish half-vacant, and this has begun to eat away at one of the core structures of modern American life. That life is more satisfying when you can touch something before you buy it, when vendors near you sell things you might need at the last minute, when people in your community can gather in places to do the mundane errands and chores of living. These spaces are social and convivial, even if just minorly so; they require people to interact with strangers and contend with the messy realities of life alongside others. The centrality of these market spaces persists across time, culture, and geography, and it predates capitalism by millennia. No matter the economic system, for people to trade for things they can’t do or make themselves, they need a common place.
Whatever that place looks like where you live now, it’s important to your community’s health. Bigger, better-known stores draw foot traffic to smaller stores and restaurants, all of which give greater visibility to other types of businesses nearby. These are areas where people go to work and walk around and spend their money, which are theoretically all things that we want people to be doing in their daily lives—the kinds of things that, say, help set coherent community norms for how to act in public, or that let teenagers gather to try out adult behaviors such as buying their own clothes or having an unsupervised lunch with friends or applying for a job. This process is how people gain skill and confidence in navigating social interactions and the world at large.
What I am explaining here is just how a town or city works, when it does—where jobs and opportunity come from, why people decide to move to a place, why they decide to stay. Whether Bed Bath & Beyond fails is, by itself, not going to break any particular city, but the larger trend that has helped it toward failure might eventually do exactly that. The more economic activity goes to e-commerce and just a few brick-and-mortar megaretailers, the more that activity fades from public view. Instead, it’s attended to by low-wage workers sequestered in warehouses or largely behind the scenes in big-box stores, and by delivery drivers alone in their truck. What consumers get in return is convenience, or at least the semblance of it: Shop all you want without leaving your home, and if you must go out, get everything you need in a single store. But as this new way of shopping becomes dominant, it also flattens out some of the social and physical texture of life. Regularly traversing the physical plane is pretty good for most people, even if it’s just to buy groceries or replace your worn-out sheets. Convenience can provide only so much, and it alone is not a particularly worthy ultimate goal of human existence.
A reversal in course to the immediate past—the era of slightly smaller, better-differentiated big-box chain stores like Bed Bath & Beyond—wouldn’t do a great deal to solve this problem. These stores were just an earlier phase of what we have now, created by the same financial efficiency seeking. Still, losing them is no great victory. It won’t dampen America’s rabid overconsumption; it will simply change the channels through which it occurs. What will replace the spots vacated by public-facing businesses is, so far, not something more fun or vibrant or fulfilling. It’s not something that encourages people to learn how to navigate a city or try new things or leave their home and interact with the world. So far, it’s usually nothing at all.