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Shopkeepers Are Antidote to Big Boxes

Spending at neighbors’ stores changes the world

January 5, 2005 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

BillingsGazette.com/Used by Permission.

When residents of Powell, Wyo., collectively bought their main street’s fading department store, it sparked a downtown commercial revival.

The big shopping news here in the Twin Cities is that Wal-Mart is coming to town with three “supercenters,” each grafting a huge grocery onto a gigantic discount store. There is wide speculation this will shake up several locally based chains.

Many stores simply shut their doors at the first sign of Wal-Mart, rather than prolong the misery of trying to compete against the invincible giant. You can see the results in boarded-up Main Streets and neighborhood shopping districts across the continent. According to noted environmental writer Bill McKibben, in Iowa alone Wal-Mart wiped out 555 groceries, 298 hardware stores, 293 building supply stores, 161 variety stores, 158 women’s clothing stores, 153 shoe stores, 116 drug stores, and 111 men’s and boy’s clothing stores in 10 years. The economy and culture of these places changed drastically as local shoppers’ money flowed out of town rather than circulating again and again through the community.

This all seems the inevitable march of economic history, trampling independent businesses into extinction everywhere. But that’s not what happened in Powell, Wyoming. Despite a Wal-Mart in a nearby town, Powell Mercantile, a downtown store that sells clothing of all kinds, thrives. That’s because the community owns it: 500 citizens put up money to launch the store because they didn’t want their Main Street boarded up.

Indeed, the store’s success started a chain reaction; other shops are opening up in once-empty downtown locations. Powell has come back to life. And now Worland, ninety miles south, is doing the same thing.

Up Against The “Wal,” and Other Hopeful Trends
Rather than a Norman Rockwell relic, Powell Mercantile is a beacon of positive trends. Americans, increasingly weary of coast-to-coast, big-chain sameness, want places that express their communities’ personalities. You hear a lot about Starbucks and the Hard Rock Cafes, but as I travel the country I find all kinds of independent coffee shops and bars with gloriously mismatched furniture, homemade food, and local beers.

They are often next door to one-of-a-kind businesses like vintage clothing stores, used bookshops, art galleries, antique dealers, boutiques, ethnic eateries, bistros, and burger joints. Some are even banding together in organizations like the new American Independent Business Alliance to make a powerful case for why locally owned businesses are essential to America’s economy and cultural future.

Evidence At Home
I see this every day in my own neighborhood, the Kingfield district of south Minneapolis, where bungalows and Craftsmen-style homes built around 1910 attract many young families. We have enjoyed a revival of small businesses over the past 10 years as new shops and restaurants pop up in old storefronts, most of them run by people living in the neighborhood.

A few blocks from my house is Roadrunner Records, with few CDs by Britney Spears, Alan Jackson or Eminem. But you can find almost every other musical genre imaginable — from Renaissance dance to Cajun classics to obscure grunge rock gems  — in abundance. Across the street is Anodyne, a bustling coffee shop that I have yet to enter without spotting a friend, neighbor, or old acquaintance. Down the street is Odds N Ends, an antique store with impeccable, topnotch bric-a-brac, curious paintings, and a broad selection of great old rugs — at prices you can actually afford. 

Strolling in a different direction from my house brings you to Bakery on Grand, whose baguettes and semolina loaves are good enough to convince you that low-carb diets are a crime against humanity. Then there’s Victor’s 1959 Café, a cool Cuban diner where a sign directs you to booths on either the left wing (Che posters) or the right wing (Free Elian posters). Catty-corner from there is the Fairy Godmother store, a marvelous selection of books, gifts, and other fun items reminding us the world is still full of magic and mystery. 

Speaking of mystery, down the block stands an inscrutable junk shop with no formally agreed-upon name, a live-in owner who is open only when the mood strikes him, and precariously steep piles of pop culture treasures, from ‘50s magazines to old lunch boxes. He also sells solar power supplies over the web. Go figure.

Independence Rocks
Places like these are the social and commercial backbone of our communities. They also expose the lie that independent stores are a thing of the past, destined to go the way of the horse and buggy. Neighborhoods all over town are now flourishing with vital, valuable, locally owned businesses. America’s entrepreneurial urge is strong and can only be extinguished if folks like you and I turn our backs on small, distinctive stores in favor of big, boring boxes.

Patronizing independent businesses enriches my life in ways large and small. Right around the corner is Caffe Tempo, a congenial coffee shop where last week my wife Julie and I ordered $11.06 worth of breakfast, tea, and greeting cards before realizing neither of us had brought a wallet. “Don’t worry,” said the clerk, “just bring it the next time.”

That doesn’t happen at a Starbucks, Denny’s, or any other chain more beholden to distant stockholders than to its neighbors and customers. So if you don’t want to see your town totaled by Wal-Marts, Burger King, and the like, stand up for your local merchants. Visit their stores. Buy something. The future of your community and our country depends on it.

Jay Walljasper, a regular contributor to the Elm Street Writers Group, lives in Minneapolis and is executive editor of Ode magazine, and strategic communications director for the New York-based Project for Public Spaces.  Reach him at jay@odemagazine.com

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