Friday, April 24, 2009

Staying Local

Recently Vertigo Books in College Park announced that they were closing. They were forced out by a few factors -- on one side there is the increasing indifference to reading, and on the other there is the behemoth of Amazon.

A few years ago Tower Records went out of business and had a long going out of business sale and I bought a lot of cds then. Why was this the case? Because Tower had absolutely fantastic selection and utterly terrible pricing. Regular cds often for $19. Imports that could cost $30. Even with the excellent selection, this was not a great business model, but as the liquidation sale went on the prices eventually got down to reasonable levels. After they closed I said half in jest that I hoped Olssons Books would go out of business next, since they had a very underrated selection of books and music. And sure enough they soon bit the dust too, but with a proper liquidation sale.

Olssons were a local chain, Tower were not, but I think all of this closing ties into the broader question of should we go local, and how local? For example, my parents do most of their grocery shopping at Synders in Silver Spring and have for decades now. Is this because they support local business, or mainly it's because Snyders is just across Georgia Avenue from their house? Probably a bit of both reasons. For me personally, the closest grocery store is now a Harris Teeter and you better believe I've started shopping there quite a bit.

So where do we start if we were to patronize local business? I think Restaurants are perhaps the easiest choice. A local restaurant is absolutely a good thing for a community. It gets people out of their houses and creates a destination. A gaggle of restaurants can anchor a street and start the revival of a neighborhood. Plus local business keep more the tax revenue in the community, as well as the money spent by the owners and employees - something that Vertigo mentions in their farewell letter. By this logic, Applebee's is a bad thing. And I really believe that in the middle of a town or community, an Applebee's without any local competition is a bad thing. It provides basic jobs, but far less of the revenue or intangibles of a locally run dining establishment. I have no problem with them existing in less concentrated areas, rest stops, by hotels etc, but restaurants like Applebee's or Bennigans or Fridays should not be the core of a town's business.

The next step of of local support gets tougher, though. I'd personally like more locally owned record stores, certain Gentlemen may want more local shoe stores, or local fancy clothes stores, but we're not clamoring in the streets for these things. I think the public disdain, but not actual uproar over Macy's douchy takeover of various local department stores (Hecht's in this area, Marshall Fields's in Chicago and many others) speaks to the issue. People like the identity and pride associated with a local department store, but they don't necessarily need it. Similarly, do I need Olssons when there's Borders and B&N and Amazon? Not really.

It leaves us in a tough place, some folks will want to fight for every local establishment, others of us have specific fights and this leaves us divided. I think Clear Channel's sweetheart deal for the "Silver Spring Filmore" is revolting but, many would see it in a different light. But if you want to start doing something good tonight, you could always "eat good in the neighborhood" at someplace other than Applebee's.


B.Graham said...

I watched Empire Records today, and it made me want to work in a record store. Or own one. Or have an open air concert in the middle of the street.

Jason Heat said...

one day you and I should open a comics/records store.

That'd be interesting.

David Pratt said...

When I watched Empire Records it just made me want to glue nickels to things.

Miasma said...

There was a coin glued to a stool or counter or something at Cdepot. Yes, I lived the Empire Records world.

Having lived in the area my whole life, I try to promote local establishments by talking them up and taking people to them. Prices (for food) can't compare to, say, Burger King. I hate when things like money deter people from trying the local flavor even once.

Miasma said...

Ozkirbas said...

I like how, in Empire, Joe's response to Lucas's theft is to, pretty much, just put him in time out.

Jstone said...

Capitalism=Better Product/Service + Lower Prices makes the victor.
I had been to Vertigo a couple times, each time forgetting how poor of an experience I had before. Small selection, absolutely none of the types of books I was looking for in fact, and a general lack of "good deals." Same thing with Tower. Same thing with GameStop (whom I boycott).These local businesses usually don't provide what big chains provide at discount big chain prices and they require some sort of niche product/service to stay in business. If there is no market for said niche then I'm sorry you have to try something or somewhere else.
The big dog is Wal-Mart which everyone who isn't actually from a small town hates (some small towners do too of course). Wal-Mart actually kept a whole lot of money in my hometown. Before Wal-Mart the only things you could buy in Cambridge were groceries and sneakers. In fact, the economy boomed so well that AFTER Wal-Mart moved in local bookstores and clothing boutiques that provided those niche products I mentioned, began to flourish.
It's a really weird situation. There's nothing wrong with going for a big chain store so long as you get what you want at a price you can agree with. The same applies for local.

Max Nova said...

I think you bring up some good points JStone and actually there are some statistics about the increase in business that Starbucks provides local coffee shops (see this Slate article

I guess I would clarify it this way. If you have options, use them. Pick your poison and use it. I don't think everyone has to shop at Vertigo or Tower, but people looking for the things they provide should give these places a shot.

I think one of the best examples of how things should be done in this area is Alexandria which has a mix of local businesses and chains, and a generally inviting vibe. I can go to Chipotle (which I've done when I'm in a hurry there) or get a really nice sit down dinner (thanks Anne).