If Everybody Looked The Same: Small Businesses In Increasingly Boring Cities

Last evening I was listening to Episode #389 of “Catholic In A Small Town”, the long-running podcast by my friends Mac and Katherine Barron – which you should subscribe to even if you’re not Catholic, as they are terrific, and hilariously funny. During the show, they discussed the travails of trying to cancel their account with a national service chain, in order to sign up with a local business providing the same service. They talked about how supporting local businesses was important to them, and that they had made the choice to do so in other areas of their purchasing lives as well.

Then this morning I learned with sadness that the venerable Embassy café, bakery, and restaurant in Madrid will be closing its doors after 86 years. An institution with a storied history, which you can read a bit about in this article, Embassy is a casually elegant holdover from a more civilized time. It is also very conveniently located in the same block as “my” neighborhood parish in Madrid. I was at Embassy last a couple of months ago, but unfortunately it will be closed before I return to visit Madrid in June. Despite the fact that it has plenty of business, the business it does have cannot compensate for the increasing rents for their property, which includes a lovely terrace under the trees on the Paseo de la Castellana, a wonderful place to meet friends for a meal or a drink.

Embassy is succumbing to the increasing homogenization of city life, which has led to the centers of many cities becoming more same-y, even as they come back from the dead thanks to a greater interest in urban living. Previously, when you traveled to another city, you might expect to see some chains, but these were counterbalanced by an equal number of one-offs – the kind of mom-and-pop businesses that locals or travel books would tell you, “If you’re looking for X, you really need to go visit this unique place.” Now, when you go to almost any city nationally or internationally, you will see the same businesses over and over again, with little in the way of local flavor.

When I first moved to Georgetown in 1991 for example, the main commercial thoroughfares of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue had a number of well-known names: Ralph Lauren, The Gap, Burger King, etc. Existing alongside these big-brand businesses were smaller, local businesses, who only existed in the village: Au Pied du Cochon, Little Caledonia, Café Northwest, and many others. People find it unbelievable when I tell them that back then, tiny Georgetown had four movie theatres, showing a variety of films from major release to art house to old movies. Today there is only a multiplex chain venue – and a very nice one it is, too, but the selection is almost entirely of the mainstream variety, that you could see in any suburban shopping mall cinema.

For most cities, neighborhood holdovers from 20, 30, 40 years ago or more are falling under an increasingly shortened list called “still there”. There is some inevitability to this, as business owners retire or needs change. Yet in many cases, these businesses are being driven out not because they lack customers, but by higher ground rent. The end result is that the chains that replace small businesses seem to last for a few years at most, and are themselves quickly replaced by another chain with outlets in every major city and airport.

Admittedly this post is more of a whinging lament, rather than a prescription for how to solve the problem. I’m not in a position to recommend solutions, or suggest that economies of scale are always bad. In fact they can be quite beneficial, when they bring in goods or services to an area that would otherwise be unable to support them. A diversity of choice creates options that improve our lives as consumers.

That being said, perhaps we have gone too far in the effort to expand perceived choice at the expense of uniqueness and individuality. The stereotype of seeing a Starbucks on every corner exists for a reason. When a local business pits quality and customer service against mass production, it can only succeed if it can keep up with its larger competitor on price, and that effort is seriously undermined when commercial landlords value rents first and foremost.

Now, I would never argue that a landlord must take a hit in the wallet in order to keep a local business in bricks and mortar. A property owner is not running a charity, after all. They have to pay their taxes, account for inflation, and turn a profit, just as any other business owner does. But perhaps what is lacking is an ingrained appreciation for the intangible value of having something unique. If the business is doing fine, then shouldn’t there be a greater effort to keep that uniqueness intact if at all possible? Easy for me to question, I grant you, but if you’re bored when you travel, and settle for shopping or dining at some place that you could just as easily visit back home, then it’s a question worth asking.

When the Emperor Charles V came to the city of Granada in order to see the Alhambra Palace, where his architects were preparing a new residence for him to live in when he visited the city, he was horrified to see that part of the Moorish fortress had been demolished to build a fairly unremarkable Italian Renaissance-style building. “What you have built here can be seen in many places,” he is reported to have said, “but what you have destroyed was unique in all the world.” Perhaps the same could be said, on a smaller scale, for those unique local businesses that deserve our support.

[Correction: a smart reader has reminded me that Charles V said this about the alterations to the Mezquita (former mosque, now a cathedral) in Cordoba, not the alterations to the Alhambra Palace. Mea culpa.]

The author (l) at Embassy last summer

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3 thoughts on “If Everybody Looked The Same: Small Businesses In Increasingly Boring Cities

  1. Small, good places are hard to find and keep open. The local coffee bar that my wife uses as her escape from the rest of us recently folded in our small town. It had amazingly good small-batch roasted coffee, attractive nosh, and the friendliest owners you could ask for. In a small town in Indiana, though, there just isn’t a huge market for “classy and refined”–and the owners were working three jobs just to keep the rent up on the coffee shop. Homogeneity also creeps into the subconsciousness of the average person–it is what ultimately kills the local craft-shop of whatever. People like what is comfortable, easy and within their sphere of experience. Refined, subtle tastes and sensibilities that contribute to keeping mom-and-pops going are increasingly a thing of the past . . . they are outre precisely because they are not utilitarian. User-friendly is the new hip (or maybe has been for about 25 years and I’m still REALLY a Luddite).

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