Journaling: Silent Storefronts

Will Rogers never met a man he didn’t like and suburban shoppers never saw an empty storefront they did like. Vacant venues that once contributed to the local economy and to consumer culture are the bane of any proud municipality that is understandably shy about smiling broadly when some of its teeth are missing. 

Shuttered stores are not unique to any community. They’re everywhere. Ask a random citizen why that is, and you’ll hear responses that put the blame on everything and everyone from predatory discount chains to overlords – I mean landlords – charging prohibitively pricey rents, to elected officials, to the world’s most powerful unelected official, Jeff Bezos, who delivered the world Amazon.   

Never is the fickle finger of blame for dormant stores pointed selfward, as in, “They’re empty because not enough people like me spent our money there.”  But the question remains: Is it stronger stores that close weaker stores, or is it shoppers who don’t shop there that lead to closure? Or is it, in part, an aging population that has fewer discretionary dollars to spend than do younger consumers, who are conditioned to conduct their transactions largely online? To that youthful cohort, bricks-and-mortar has more to do with Lego than with how and where they choose to consume goods and services.  

There is no question shopping patterns have changed markedly. Inevitably, that’s going to affect the utility of a storefront that once greeted a profitable flow of walk-in customers and now sits dormant, waiting either for a first responder (or any responder) to perform CPR on it – or for an executioner to proclaim it terminally irrelevant.  

When a new commercial development is met with resistance from constituents who lose their lunch at the thought of something new rising when there is retail space that goes wanting, it’s useful to consider that just because a retail space is vacant does not mean it is desirable for businesses that are new in town or relocating. A business owner willing to invest in a community with a new structure is to be applauded by an appreciative audience, not booed off the stage.  

Our “new consumerism” that has brought on the blight of silent storefronts may seem like it happened overnight. Yet, consider this passage from the synopsis of a book published almost a quarter-century ago, titled Going Shopping: Consumer Choices and Community Consequences, by Ann Satterthwaite (Yale University Press, 2001)…

“Shopping used to be a friendly business: shoppers and clerks knew each other, the country crossroads stores and downtown markets were social as much as economic hubs. Shopping was meshed with civic life—post offices, town halls, courts, and churches. In place of this almost vanished scene have come superstores and the franchises of international companies staffed by pressured clerks in featureless commercial wastelands. Shopping and community have been savagely divorced.” 

It’s not about bricks-and-mortar versus e-commerce per se. It’s about accepting the necessity of looking for opportunities that are now here instead of nowhere.

1 Comment

  1. Towns/villages need to allow some residential use of what has previously been commercial property. I n other cases the buildings should be razed and the property used for parking or parks. Your last sentence mentions looking for opportunities. That is very true and it is true for the actual land usage in a changing culture.

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About the Author: Bruce Apar