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

Go Put Your Pants On

A week or two ago I noticed a rather disturbing trend among men here in the Nation’s Capital, something which I had read about in several publications, but until then I had not noticed on our sidewalks: the trend of wearing a shirt and tie to work…with shorts.

Now let me begin this post with a caveat. As an attorney, I admit that I work in a sartorially buttoned-up profession. I wear a suit most days, and always on days when I have scheduled meetings. On those days when I don’t have to meet anyone in person, I might wear a blazer or sports jacket, but always with a tie, dress shirt, dress shoes, and trousers. It would never occur to me to wear shorts to the office.

I also know that many professions allow for shorts, due to the nature of the work itself. A driver delivering packages, or a waiter serving tables at an outdoor restaurant, no doubt is grateful not to have wear long pants as part of his uniform.  Particularly in this swamp-like city, the ability to wear shorts to work can be a great blessing for those engaged in manual labor in the services and trades.

For those who work in offices however, I find the trend of shorts and ties ridiculous and incomprehensible. It lends an infantile air to someone who ought to know better than to imagine that other adults are going to take them seriously. Because to be frank, if you came into my office wearing shorts and a tie, I would from the get-go think there was something deeply wrong with you, even if I might not say it aloud.

In some ways, this trend is of a piece with the increasingly lackadaisical attitude toward men wearing shorts in cities in general. I am not quite sure when adult males collectively decided that what they wore to the beach was acceptable at the supermarket, as if they were only 11 years old and out shopping with their mommies.  And the overall laxity of standards in this regard is perhaps most irritating when it comes to church.

My Fellow Fisheaters: there is NO excuse for a grown man to wear shorts to Mass. None. If you are old enough to vote, buy cigarettes, and pay taxes, you are too old to wear shorts to Mass. Even then, I would suggest the cut-off date probably lies closer to the age you begin shaving.

I do not care how hot it is. I do not care what you are doing before or after Mass. I do not care that the church has no air conditioning, or that you are on vacation. In fact, the latter is something baffling that I witness at my downtown DC parish all the time, surrounded as it is by hotels. If you’re visiting someone else’s home for the first time for an indoor, sit-down supper – and in this case, the Supper of all suppers – why would you show up dressed for a volleyball tournament? Look at pictures of your grandfather attending Mass fifty years ago, and I guarantee you that there will be not a single one of him inside a church wearing shorts.

How did we get to the point where no one even thinks this is worth criticizing? It occurred largely because people are now deathly afraid to criticize, which of course is part of the reason we have grown a large crop of infantile males who would want to dress like this in the first place, over the last few decades. It is also because we have forgotten the difference between style and fashion.

Style exists in tandem with, but ultimately independently of, fashion. Cuts, colors, and fabrics can change from season to season, as they go in and out of fashion. Yet style changes more slowly, developing as one ages. I could never pull off a leather jacket when I was a fresh-faced kid; now that I’m more weathered, I could never pull off a shirt and tie with shorts – nor would I attempt to. In what I choose to wear, I send a message; if I choose well, the viewer appreciates the clothes, but appreciates me, more.

What’s the message a grown man in shorts and a tie is trying to send as he clomps along in dress shoes without socks – I’ll save that pet peeve for another time – to those who see him on the street? That he may technically be an adult, but he would rather be in Kindergarten? That it’s better in the Bahamas? That he’s a member of a Boyz II Men cover band?

There is certainly a place for shorts in a man’s wardrobe, no one is questioning that. Not everything that is older is better: I would never suggest you play tennis in the summer in white flannels, for example.  Rather, the real point of inquiry is where and when the place for wearing shorts may legitimately be found. The answer will vary based on the activities you perform, and the environment in which you perform them.

However as a general rule, gentlemen, I am going to keep this simple for you. Please do not wear shorts with a tie. Ever. And more to the point, when you’re planning to see your bank manager, your attorney, or most importantly God, please go put your pants on.  

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The Flickering Memories of Dining Out

I’ve been thinking about old restaurants a lot.  Not necessarily the fancy, Michelin-starred sort of places, necessarily, but places which have hung on for a long time.  When you stand back and look at it rationally, it’s a bit weird that we put more of an emotional investment into the occasional spending outlay of eating out, than we do into things we purchase all the time, like soap or paper towels.  So why is that?

We’ve been having a really hard time of it lately in Georgetown, the neighborhood in Washington, DC where I happen to hang my cape.  One after the other, a number of long-established local dining institutions have been shutting down, to be replaced either by new restaurants or by retail space.  Au Pied du Cochon, The Guards, and Cafe La Ruche, among others, have become historical footnotes in the history of the village.  Now we can add Chadwick’s to that list.

Businesses don’t last forever, not even favorite old haunts, and particularly not in the restaurant world.  True, some places have remarkable powers of survival.  Lhardy in Madrid for example, has been serving outstanding food near the Puerta del Sol since 1839; Scott’s in London has existed in one form or another since the 17th century, albeit not in its present location, when it began life as a tavern serving oysters brought down by coach from Scotland.

In some cases the place stays the same, but the identity changes.  Georgetown’s City Tavern Club, for example, occupies what started out as The Indian King tavern and coaching inn back in 1796, and has gone through numerous owners and name changes since then.  Other dining spots manage to hold on to both location and ownership, such as Billy Martin’s Tavern, which opened in Georgetown in 1933 and is still owned and operated by the Martin family today.  If Martin’s ever went bust, I think I would go into mourning.

Lest you think that such things only concern what we might call everyday people, the high and mighty have their own attachments to favorite dining establishments.  For example, in the British press this morning there were reports of Prince Charles having personally written a letter to Antonio Carluccio, when the chef had to close down his popular Neal Street restaurant in Covent Garden.  The place where celebrity chef Jamie Oliver got his start had to shutter, due to ill health stemming from the chef’s exhaustion.  That is the nature of the beast of course, when the chef both defines the place and runs the business, as it can spell the inevitable end of a great dining establishment over time.

When we lose a favorite dining spot, particularly one that we have known for awhile, it’s a bit like losing a member of the family.  We may even feel guilty about not visiting them more often, as if we owed a for-profit business some measure of sworn fealty or filial devotion.  After all, this is just commerce, and an ephemeral sort of commerce at that: we eat the food, and it is gone.

Except what really distinguishes a favorite restaurant is not the food, but the memories we make there.  A dining spot where we celebrated a significant event, for example, like a birthday or anniversary or first date, can burn bright in our memories long after we’ve forgotten what we ate.  And even when we do remember the menu, more likely than not it’s not just the food, but the company who shared that food with us, that causes us to look back fondly at the place.

Restaurants will continue to come and go as tastes change, market forces expand and contract, and chefs retire or move on to other things.  So while not turning into some sort of guilt complex, it’s important to periodically visit your favorite spots to help keep them going.  More importantly however, you want to make return visits to places you like to eat, in order to keep your old memories fresh, and continue to make new ones.  For the day will almost inevitably come when you can no longer sit down to dinner at a place like The Guards, in front of a roaring fire, eating the best cheeseburger in the village with a group of good friends in lively discussion.  And that will be quite a sorry day, when it comes.

Fireplace at The Guards, Georgetown, circa 2009

Fireplace at The Guards, Georgetown, circa 2009