One of my favorite activities is browsing and lingering at bookstores and record stores. You can still do that in most major cities, but in the suburbs, it has become quite a challenge; unfortunately my best shot is at the mall. And, like most men, the mall experience, with it vast parking lots, multiple levels, hyperscents and fast food courts, just isn’t worth the hassle.
For decades, the big chains of all kinds have replaced small neighborhood shops. Everybody enjoys the low prices the chains charge, and they made a profit for a while. Then the on-line services like Amazon and E-bay drove prices down even further, and Brown brings the stuff right to our doors.
So the big chains replaced the small neighborhood stores, and now the on-line sites are pushing out the big chain stores. At the High Ridge Road shopping Center in Stamford, CT last month, the Borders bookstore closed. A favorite place for regional consumers to browse books and magazines and enjoy a coffee, our Borders closure was just part of the nation’s second largest bookstore chain’s failure. (They closed another one on the Norwalk-Wilton border, too.) Employing more than 10,000 employees, Borders could no longer turn a profit. Five years ago, at the other end of the shopping center, Tower Records closed its doors.
I miss the neighborhood retailers—the record and bookstores and, yes, the local pharmacies. From our local CVS, where we spend a small fortune every month, we receive a daily impersonal automated phone call telling us that the prescriptions are ready. We make our way over there, we’re greeted by staff that asks you how you spell your last name (Tell me, is there another spelling for “Diamond?”), and then are told that there’s a mistake and the prescriptions are not ready. Even better, at the local Walgreen pharmacy each month the clerk quizzes us how the prescription could possibly be appropriate for a six year old. “It’s for a dog,” I announce each time. By the time you should get to know the staff at these big chains, there is a new employee you’ve never met before.
I was reminded while on vacation at the Jersey Shore last week how nice it can be to experience small shops where you can actually have a conversation with knowledgeable staff. In Stone Harbor, I chatted with the book-loving clerk at the small bookstore, and the local sandwich shop knew my “usual” order by my third visit. I suspect that this kind of relationship still exists in small towns all across the country. It’s becoming rare in the suburbs and rarer in the big cities.
Now that the big chains are disappearing, is it time for the small neighborhood stores to return? I, for one, would be willing to pay more at a local pharmacy or a bookstore if they would resurface. Is there a place in today’s marketplace and rigorous web pricing, for neighborhood shops? Has the digital explosion caused the music stores to disappear forever, with bookstores soon to follow? Or are we destined to a future of clicks on tiny screens on smart phones and tablets instead of conversing with knowledgeable humans? Perhaps it’s just another case of hopeless nostalgia.
My greatest fear, however is not the disappearance of the neighborhood store, but that the limited profitability ultimately leads to the elimination of the stuff that used to be sold in the stores.