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Storefront Stagnation: Coping With Neighborhood Retail’s New Realities

We miss the locally owned shops that once sustained community on our Main Streets. We need to try to sustain them in a radically different economic world.

Englewood.Chicago.1950s
Englewood, a neighborhood in Chicago, circa 1955, when local businesses dominated the main drag. (Photo: CTA)
Like many of the residents of our northern Virginia neighborhood, I am attached to my local bookstore and worry that it could go away. I try to shop there instead of at Amazon whenever I can.

Concern for local retail is nothing unusual in America these days. What's unusual is that my bookstore isn't a cozy independent establishment catering to local tastes. It's a Barnes & Noble, an outpost of the largely impersonal national chain. It matters to the community not because its staff members are familiar faces with longstanding literary knowledge. They aren't. It matters because it's as close to local bookselling commerce as most of us are likely to get at this point in the 21st century.

At the same time, I have meaningful relationships with the two pharmacists at a nearby Safeway supermarket — much closer than I have with my once-a-year, 20-minute doctor.

My point is that we need local commerce — need it in the same way we did a couple of generations ago. If we can't get it from bibliophile bookstore owners with long memories or kindly white-haired druggists in white coats, we take whatever we can get, even if it's from functionaries at the lower rungs of corporate America. Nearly 50 years ago, the sociologist Mark Granovetter published a landmark paper on what he called "weak ties" — the casual low-level relationships with the people we encounter from day to day on our neighborhood streets. To a very great extent, these are commercial relationships. They are as fundamental now as those that were common when Granovetter wrote, even if they scarcely resemble the ones that existed then.

When I was 6 years old, I could saunter down to Sam's food shop at the end of our Chicago block and fulfill my mother's request for a loaf of rye bread without having to cross a street. Sam wasn't a particularly nice man, but as far as I knew, he had always been there and always would be. A couple of doors down, I could buy a just-made hand-dipped taffy apple, a dime for caramel and 15 cents for chocolate. Just across 55th Street, I could walk into a quirky little store that sold toys, rented out popular novels and functioned as a bookie joint. I suppose you could call it a mixed-use development.

This was the norm all over urban America in the postwar years. In St. Nick's parish on Chicago's southwest side, a neighborhood that was very different from mine but equally endowed with nurturing weak ties, housewives made it a point to stop in twice a week at Bertucci's butcher shop to order customized cuts of meat and trade gossip with Bertucci. Young married couples brought their parents with them to buy dining-room sets at Lindon Furniture, where they were waited on by Elick Lindon himself. On Friday evenings, the workers at the local factories trooped to Talman Federal Savings to deposit their paychecks and were greeted by owner Ben Bohac, a local boy who sometimes provided zither music to entertain them.

ALL RIGHT, THAT'S ENOUGH. It's not my purpose to drown you in nostalgia. I merely want to remind you of how vital these kinds of relationships are, and how important it is to try to sustain them in some form in a radically different economic world.

The relevance of all this was made graphically clear this winter in an exhibition at the Municipal Art Society of New York that featured the work of James and Karla Murray, who have spent most of the past two decades photographing and exploring the thousands of storefronts that comprised the bulk of New York commerce until just the past few years. The Murrays have written two important books on the storefronts and their proprietors. Their work both laments the many retail businesses that have disappeared in the last few years alone and celebrates the storekeepers who have managed to stay afloat in an age of consolidation and Internet shopping.

"A great many of them have not only survived," the Murrays write hopefully in their most recent book, Storefront II, "but continue to play a vital role as ad hoc community centers." At the same time, they concede, "the neighborhood stores throughout the city where we buy a cup of coffee, the morning newspaper or a loaf of bread have become increasingly threatened."

The work of the Murrays is a rich compendium of juicy retail lore — the baker who proudly placed his freshest bread in the store window for everyone to see and sniff; the barber who sang opera to his customers as he cut their hair; the rise and fall of neon as a signage attraction, and its partial comeback in recent years as a retro novelty.

The urban scholar Philip Langdon, who examined the Art Society show, pointed out all these curiosities and more in a recent article, "The Precarious State of the Mom-and-Pop Store." Langdon's analysis reminds us that storefront retail serves more than one crucial function: It not only connects customers to the familiar shopkeepers in their neighborhood universe, but also gives the commercial streets a walkability that allows people to stroll down the sidewalk and renew acquaintance with the neighbors they look forward to interacting with.

The retail revolution of the past decade not only has deprived us of singing barbers and shop windows with the rich aroma of fresh bread, it has led us to a situation in which, just as in residential development, the middle has been hollowed out. At the top end of the retail scale, Nordstrom survives, and probably will continue to; at the bottom of the scale, Dollar General is doing fine. It's the visually and emotionally memorable delicatessens and clothing stores and hardware stores whose disappearance the Murrays have so carefully documented.

THE DECLINE IN MIDDLE-CLASS RETAIL COMMERCE is a facet of the decline of the middle class in much of America in general. A century ago, as the sociologist C. Wright Mills pointed out in the 1950s, middle-class America consisted largely of self-employed entrepreneurs — farmers, craftsmen, professionals working solo. By mid-century, most of this societal cohort had died away, and the route to middle-class life was largely through employment as a clerk or bureaucrat in a large and impersonal corporate hierarchy. Mills considered this a tragic assault on individual freedom. Not everyone would agree with his point of view.

But there was one notable exception to Mills' portrait of middle-class erosion. This was the independent storekeeper, choosing his own merchandise, his own storefront, his own hours and his own way of dealing with the public. This lingering remnant of the middle class is the one that is now eroding most dramatically. Its erosion has had a disproportionate effect on immigrants to big cities, many of whom have worked tirelessly to survive as grocers, beauticians, dry cleaners and other vestiges of earlier middle-class commerce. Some of them continue to make it, as the Murrays document, but more have not, taking away one last crucial piece of the old middle-class American economy.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of retail commercial erosion is its prevalence in the most affluent neighborhoods of America's most affluent cities. The West Village of lower Manhattan that Jane Jacobs celebrated in The Death and Life of Great American Cities was a dense conglomeration of small businesses whose proprietors knew their customers intimately. Half a century later, Jacobs' old territory had grown far richer than it had been in 1960, but most of the shopkeepers were gone, replaced to a large extent by banks, high-end boutiques and drugstores. The irony is that gentrifiers who moved to the area largely to participate in its human-scale commercial life no longer have a lot to participate in.

THERE IS MUCH ABOUT STOREFRONT STAGNATION THAT WE CAN'T DO ANYTHING TO FIX. The emergence of online shopping and the retail business losses driven by the coronavirus are simply facts of life. But there is one factor that can be addressed, and that is the relationship between merchants and landlords.

Thousands of individually owned stores and businesses have disappeared because landlords, seeking richer tenants and greater profits, have raised rents to levels the merchants cannot afford. This is true not only in high-end territory like the West Village but in diverse precincts of urban America. It can be remedied. New York's City Council has had before it for more than 30 years a bill that would force commercial landlords to negotiate 10-year leases with their tenants at fair rents, or submit to arbitration if they refuse. For all these years, the legislation has been bottled up by the real estate industry and by the elected politicians, even notably progressive ones, who depend on the real estate lobby for campaign contributions. The current sponsors are hoping that in the present economic climate, the bill will finally get the attention it deserves. Enacting such legislation wouldn't halt the erosion of neighborhood commerce, in New York or anywhere else. But it would help.

In the end, the survival of neighborhood retail commerce, even in truncated form, could depend on the answer to a complex question. Who has the rights in a battle over local commerce? Is it the landlord, the tenant or the community? If it is merely a struggle between the landlord and the tenant, the landlord will win almost every time. If the community has a voice, the result is likely to be different.

In France, there are at least 30,000 independently owned bakeries on commercial streets across the country. This is in part because the French people love bread, but it is also because local artisans have had the right to approve or disapprove the applications of supermarkets that want to come into their neighborhoods and compete. It is entirely possible that 30,000 bakeries are more than France actually needs. But if you have ever walked down a Paris street on a summer morning and seen and smelled the warm baguettes the residents are carrying home from their bakeries, you may well believe the French bread law is a price worth paying.

Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at ehrenhalt@yahoo.com.
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