Local Businesses Provide More Than Just Goods


The old phrase “use it or lose it” applies especially to neighborhood businesses

LIVING IN A NEIGHBORHOOD—even the swankiest one—with no grocery, coffee shop or other businesses is like wearing a nice new suit of clothes without shoes. It looks great, but you’ve got no place to go. Local shops, preferably within walking distance, are the soul of any community, the place where you bump into your neighbors and get that satisfying sense of belonging.

These neighborhood hang outs don’t need to be fancy or charming. Sometimes their idiosyncratic character is the best expression of your neighborhood’s true personality. A funky, messy junk shop run by a lovable eccentric can be more welcoming than a charming-as-can-be tea shoppe or nostalgically-correct soda fountain. Even a plain video store with good window display or a laundromat with comfy benches out front can become a kind of town square that attracts people.

In many small towns, an ice cream shop is the hot spot for teenagers, while other folks in the community wander down to the gas station to drink pop and tell stories. In a lot of African-American neighborhoods, the barber shop and beauty parlor are the social hubs. These places may not sound like your idea of an exciting time but, to the people who live there, such businesses are as important as sidewalk cafes are to Parisians.

IN OXFORD, MISSISSIPPI, MANY FOLKS CREDIT A BOOKSTORE WITH HELPING HEAL THE CITY’S PRIDE after a vicious anti-civil rights riot erupted in the 1960s. Square Books, right on the courthouse square, restored many people’s faith that this was a caring, civilized community. It also helped revive the sagging downtown.

“What tends to get lost in the argument over the future of independent stores is that the dangers posed to them by superstores and on-line sellers don’t just threaten some quaint form of distributing goods,” writes author Rob Gurwitt about Square Books in Mother Jones magazine. “They imperil the fabric of our community life. Real-life stores—their place on the street, the people they draw in, the presence they cast in the community at large—help define their neighborhoods.”

It’s no secret that local businesses almost everywhere are under siege from mega-malls and big box retailers. Everyone who cares even a little about their neighborhood should make a commitment to patronize local businesses, even when bread or duct tape or CDs can be had cheaper by driving to a national chain store. Vote with your pocketbook to keep your community vital. Indeed, you might even find yourself ahead economically with the money saved on gasoline and unnecessary purchases you would never have made if you hadn’t gone into the big box. And, you’ll be way ahead in terms of community spirit and social enjoyment.

THANKFULLY, SMALL NEIGHBORHOOD STORES ARE BEGINNING TO FIGHT BACK WITH BUSINESS IMPROVEMENT DISTRICTS. This is a well-proven model where local merchants work together to spruce up commercial streets by adding nice landscaping, fixing up the storefronts, improving the lighting and other amenities. They also cooperate on advertising campaigns, special neighborhood events, shared parking facilities, and other improvements.

Many merchants are banding together in an even bigger way by joining Independent Business Alliances, which draw public attention to the numerous benefits of locally owned businesses (how often do Wal-Mart and Home Depot buy uniforms for the local little league team or sponsor an art fair?) and by lobbying political officials and the media to take note of unfair economic tactics wielded by big retailers. The first IBA began in Boulder, Colorado in 1997 and within two years involved 150 local businesses. There are now IBAs in more than 20 communities—stretching from Corvallis, Oregon, to Greenville, South Carolina— and a national group, the American Independent Business Alliance, based in Missoula, Montana.

IN HARTLAND, A VILLAGE IN THE DEVON COUNTRYSIDE OF ENGLAND, a community school took over management of the Happy Pear green grocer and market when it was about to close. It offers students a wonderful lesson in business management and sustainable economics. And, local townspeople won’t have to drive many kilometers for fresh and organic food. This is just one example of a growing number of community initiatives to preserve and promote essential local shops. In another English village, Maiden Bradley in Wiltshire, 60 percent of residents pledged between five and five-hundred pounds ( $10-1000) to save and refurbish their general store (village shop in the British parlance), with townspeople doing most of the work. It is now community-owned with any profits going back to village itself.

IN THE SEATTLE SUBURB OF LAKE FOREST PARK, RESIDENTS RALLIED AROUND A UNIQUE, REDEVELOPED MALL that was envisioned as a community center as much as a retail outlet. Third Place Commons features a superb bookstore as well as a food court featuring local restauranteurs and a stage for nightly music and performances. It has become such a beloved local hangout that regular customers formed Friends of Third Place Commons, a non-profit group to help keep the place thriving.

Resources: “Square Books”:www.squarebooks.com “American Independent Business Alliance”:amiba.net “Friends of Third Place Commons”:www.thirdplacecommons.org