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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4 thoughts on “Do We Have a Moral Obligation to Shopkeepers?

  1. William: I applaud you for your thoughtful commentary on this difficult issue. I particularly appreciate the fact that you highlighted how the loss of these unique businesses is changing the character of their neighborhoods. There are no easy answers, but I do think many small “historic” businesses can do more to run their businesses more efficiently and attract new customers, especially through technology. Unfortunately, many business owners are so busy running their businesses they don’t have time to explore these new options. In addition, they operate on such narrow profit margins, they can’t take a risk on an unproven strategy that might not work. Finally, some shop owners can be very defensive and reluctant to accept outside help. Efforts like “Small Business Saturday” and shop local campaigns have helped to highlight that our individual purchasing decisions have a very real impact on sustaining the character of our communities, but it will take the combined efforts of property owners, business owners, government and consumers to solve the whole issue, if indeed it can be solved.

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    • Thanks so much for your comments. And of course I do want to point out that I am not by any means suggesting that there should be no effort to help historic, family-owned businesses survive, if they provide some intangible good to the community. Only that there needs to be a realization in some, perhaps many instances, that cities and towns change over time, and nothing – not even an historic restaurant or shop – survives forever.

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  2. Reblogged this on The Valley Preservationist and commented:
    William Newton offers a very thoughtful commentary on the issue of small locally-owned shops being pushed out of their longtime locations due to rising rents. Having worked in a number of communities with struggling historic downtown areas, I really appreciate all facets of this problem, for which there are no easy answers.

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