Three posts have called my attention this weekend. In the first one, by New York Times columnist Louis Hyman, titled The Myth of Main Street, he calls out Main Street businesses as inefficient for their lack of access to economies of scale; Main Street advocates as nostalgic types who want to go back to a rougher time that they view as more romantic but does not, in fact, exist; and customers of expensive Main Street businesses as an elitist, gentrifying and aloof crowd. Then there was a story by Travis Andrews at the Washington Post, America is ‘over-stored’ and Payless ShoeSource is the latest victim in which he puts the blame for low occupancy and closures in an overstock of built retail square footage and the pressure from online retailers. This crisis has seen thousands of store closings, traditional brands filing for Chapter 11 and many, many jobs lost.
The silver lining comes in the last post, by Steve Mouzon in his blog The Original Green, called The New Starting Point for Retail. I very much agree with Steve. Conditions have changed. The market has shifted towards more local, small stores that are, in fact, more sustainable. The millennial generation is embracing a different kind of retail culture in which store owners don’t just sell but are critical parts of the supply chain. They know their providers, their trades and their families. They make a point of working with them to improve the quality, packaging, consistency and other aspects of their products. They tend to their businesses and know and love every aspect of them. And the design of local stores, generally, tends to be very generous with the city and its immediate context. A plant, a bench, an awning are familiar fixtures that contribute to build civic values and transform storefronts into community hubs. They are the Storefront Placemakers and they add value to streets in a way no large scale plan or standardised chain store could.
Main Street might be a bit shocked by Red Tape, high operational costs and cheap Chinese goods sold for 99 cents at the nearest chain store, but it has the bones to come back in style. The future of cities is to be decided locally. We need to look at what makes businesses stumble and fix the problems, not their consequences.
The word we should be discussing is devolution.