Tag Archives: retail

Do We Have a Moral Obligation to Shopkeepers?

Although I celebrate the principle of historic preservation, there are times when it can go a bit too far.  The recent case here in Washington of the hideous Christian Science Church near the White House is a good example of how people confuse “old” with “historic” in this country.  However there is a different topic in historic preservation which often gets overlooked, and that is the historic business.  The question I want to pose to the reader is, do we have a moral duty to shopkeepers to preserve their old business, or does that business have to rise or fall through its own merits?

My favorite city in the world, Barcelona, is a very ancient place, founded by the Carthaginians and later populated by the Greeks and Romans.  While no garum shops survive from Roman days – although you can find their amazingly well-preserved ruins in the underground streets atop which sits the City History Museum – there are some businesses still trading that existed a century or more ago.  Set Portes restaurant down near the harbor, for example, has been serving seafood and rice dishes since 1836.

As of January 1st of this year, many of the older shops in Barcelona and throughout Spain are facing almost certain closure.  A national law which we might translate as the “Urban Lease Act”, created substantial changes to the property leasing market throughout Spain.  It contains a number of common-sense reforms, such as clarifying rights and responsibilities for landlord-tenant agreements for university students, but as part of these reforms, the new law also does away with existing rent controls for commercial properties.  This means that many historic shops which lease their premises, and have existed for 50-100 years or more, are now facing extinction.

One early victim, the nearly 70-year-old Canuda bookshop in the Gothic Quarter, has already shut its doors.  So has the superb Monforte toy store, which first opened its doors in 1840.  And it has recently been announced that the lovely old Quilez grocery/delicatessen/liquor store, where I used to go to buy a very specific brand of Russian vodka one cannot find in this country, is going to have to close as well.  The rent hikes on its prominent and prestigious building, located on the corner of a fashionable shopping street downtown, were too great to bear.

Of course, the change in the law will not affect all historic businesses the same way.  As one might imagine, luxury dealers in items like women’s accessories or jewelry/watch dealers will probably survive.  And although it will be too late for many historic businesses, Barcelona city officials are now scrambling – better late than never – to try to come up with some sort of municipal plan of action to save what is left, perhaps through tax breaks or zoning changes.

So this situation brings us back to the question I asked at the beginning of this piece, which is whether we have a moral obligation to protect businesses such as these from changes in the economic environment, or whether the effects of the market on such businesses are morally neutral.

No one likes to see a beautiful old business shut its doors, leaving a hole in a community where it had long-standing ties.  There is something tragic about the loss to the fabric of a neighborhood when this happens, even if it the business in question was only open for a few decades rather than a few centuries.  The departure of several old taverns in my Washington neighborhood of Georgetown for example – particularly The Guards – left me and many others genuinely saddened by the loss.  Georgetown’s commercial district more and more comes to resemble an outdoor shopping mall for people who do not live in the neighborhood, and less of an actual neighborhood for those of us who do live there.

Yet the impetus to engage in commerce, lest one forget it, is in most cases not a charitable one.  Commercial property ownership is not entered into with the expectation that one will lose money by engaging in it, any more than a commercial business sets up shop just to be nice.  The parties are there to make a profit, and to ignore the profit-making principle is to sentimentalize their motives.  In fact, to argue that a business should be preserved simply because it sells nice things that no one wants to buy is arguably a form of idolatary, in which we are asked to worship a golden calf in the form of a book or a marionette or a bottle of gin.

It seems to this scrivener that if there is a moral obligation to preserve an historic business, it is at best one limited to specific instances and not a universal principle – although I rely on you, gentle reader, to upbraid me in the comments box if you disagree.  When customers are not buying, or profits are non-existent, that is unfortunate, and perhaps it is time to shift to trading in something else.  However, that does not mean that the original commercial enterprise must be renewed ad infinitum simply because it is old. Otherwise, we would still have blacksmiths and wig makers on every corner.

The Colmado Quilez on Rambla Catalunya, Barcelona

The Colmado Quilez on Rambla Catalunya, Barcelona

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Over The Limit and Through The Malls

While The Courtier is not prepared to stop bathing, and infest himself with either lice or Timothy Leary-esque logorrhoea, he must admit that he is beginning to wonder whether we have gone too far in our embrace of consumerism, when it comes to marking the times and seasons of life here in the United States. This has always been, thank goodness, a nation of consumers who actually like to consume, rather than falsely claiming that they do not like having a wide range of goods and services at various price points to choose from – whether we are talking about butter, guns, or tablet computers. And yet, there has to be some point at which the love of “stuff”, such as it is, makes way for the love of families, friends, and country.

Yesterday the Twitterverse started chatting about the fact that a number of national retailers decided to start their upcoming Black Friday sales early: and by early, either on Thanksgiving itself, or at midnight as Thanksgiving rolls into Black Friday. The national news media is now picking up on this story, as retailers across the country are adopting earlier and earlier opening times to try to take advantage of fewer shoppers during our economic malaise. According to one report from CNN:

This year marks Target’s earliest opening ever. Target, Best Buy, Macy’s, and Kohl’s are all opening at midnight on Thanksgiving eve. Wal-Mart recently announced plans to open its doors to the public at 10 p.m., then Toys R Us followed suit, announcing it would open most stores as early as 9 p.m. the day before Black Friday.

For my non-American readers, it should be explained that Black Friday is the day which falls after Thanksgiving Day, a national holiday commemorated on the fourth Thursday in November. Thanksgiving of course, needs little or no introduction, other than to say it is a near-universally beloved holiday in this country, as being one of the very few times of year when overworked Americans take the day off. Most everything other than basic services grinds to a complete halt, so that people can gather with family and friends, and be thankful that they have each other, and this great country to live in, with all of the bounty, hope, and possibilities available here.

Black Friday has been, for many years, a day that generates so much retail sales volume, because many people have or take the day off, and want to start their Christmas shopping, that many retailers go “into the black” in their accounting ledgers for the year, just from the sales generated on this one day. Traditionally, many American retailers held off promoting their Christmas merchandise and putting up their decorations, or making their special seasonal sales and discount pitches, until the day after Thanksgiving. Fortunately, some such as Nordstrom still do – and they should be applauded for it.

Let no one accuse this scrivener of being some sort of economic hypocrite, protesting against capitalism while tweeting from my iPhone and wearing an overpriced, fleece-insulated jacket made in China out of plastic fibers picked up from a yuppie outdoors retailer. When it comes to the embrace of the wealth of consumer products available for purchase, this truly is the land of plenty. The Courtier thoroughly enjoys patronizing retail establishments of all sorts, and savours finding a great bargain on a bold sartorial item or the like.

Yet there is no real justification other than pure greed to explain opening a toy store at 9:00 pm on Thanksgiving, since the sole purpose of such a promotional tactic is to persuade people to leave their families on a holiday, in order to spend their money on products which are not necessities. Nor is there any moral imperative to explain why people should be encouraged to leave the house before midnight, in order to stand in line in the cold and the dark just to purchase a new blender at a discount. In these and other cases, consumers can make such purchases in the morning, if they choose, after they have recovered from the feast shared with the family the evening before.

Moreover, all of these shops need to be staffed, in order to provide their products to shoppers. While the corporate heads who decided to open on Thanksgiving night are tucked soundly in their beds, their employees will be cutting short Thanksgiving dinner, or possibly avoiding their turkey altogether so as not have the tryptophan turn them into somnambulants. They will down pots of coffee in order to head in to work, to provide sales assistance, security, stocking, and the other services of their employment, without which these overnight sales cannot happen.

The only explanation for the tawdry policies and tactics adopted by those major retailers engaging in this practice is that the worship of Mammon has taken over nearly any semblance of remaining decency and respect for American values, both on the part of these retailers, and on the part of those consumers who will respond to their siren song. Putting profit ahead of one of the most cherished and long-lived American traditions, and one which thank goodness has virtually no consumer goods attached to it other than the foods we eat, is insulting to the people of this country. And those among our citizenry who choose to participate in it ought to be equally ashamed of themselves, particularly those who will push their credit cards to their limits just to take advantage of hoarding goods from the malls and shopping centers that they really do not need.

The present state of the union is one marred by spiraling debt burdens, tremendous levels of unemployment, smelly anarchism, and so on. Americans need holidays like Thanksgiving to step back from all of this, and to be with those they care about – to share a good meal, to relive old memories, and to make new ones. Do not doubt that this writer is no leftist, in any sense of that term. However, it still must be said that it is a great pity that our national retailers cannot see past their bottom line, in this instance, to recognize that some things are more sacred than the pursuit of profit, and that some shoppers will put materialism at the top of their priority list.


“The Road, Winter” by Currier & Ives (1853)

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