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Why Big Business Will Never Win Over Mom and Pop Shops

photo: Julia Manzerova

In 2001, Alex Marshall wrote a book called How Cities Work, in which he predicted the death of small retail stores:

The history of retail is one of prices getting lower in exchange for fewer and fewer steps between producer and consumer. The end result of this may be all of us going to one huge store located in some midpoint of the country, say Kansas City.

“It’s already happened,” I said to myself, thinking about the many purchases I’d made from an up-and-coming online retailer called Amazon.com. But then I looked around. I was reading the book at Victrola Coffee. Afterwards, I went to pick up my dry cleaning at the little place up the block, then stopped into North Hill bakery for a cookie and ate it on the way to the little bookstore, where I looked at new titles and thought about writing a book someday myself.

That was nearly ten years ago. Since then, sure enough, change has hit my neighborhood, Seattle’s Capitol Hill. But it’s not the kind of change Marshall predicted.

We now have three competing local ice cream shops. An independent butcher and a cheese shop opened two weeks ago. We have an independent watch and clock store, a toy store, and a place that sells environmentally friendly home furnishings. My friend Jessie opened an art gallery specializing in cute cupcake art. A young couple opened a cafe serving 150 kinds of tea, and I made it my office. The locally-owned Victrola Coffee flourished: it now has three locations.

Meanwhile, a Ben & Jerry’s and Burger King closed. A KFC turned into a local taco place.

To be sure, our neighborhood hasn’t dodged the recession. The bookstore closed (although another independent bookstore moved in), as have a variety of restaurants and other shops.

But it’s hard to deny that we’ve had a mom and pop retail renaissance. People have been predicting the death of the small shop for decades, but it endures. How? For some clues, I took a look at two success stories.

Coffee with a personal touch

What can a local shop offer that Starbucks can’t? A few years ago, I wrote a column asking that very question, and came up with a few answers: beer and wine; free wireless internet; better coffee; and a stick-it-to-the-man aesthetic.

Since then, Starbucks has made plays for all of those markets. They made their wi-fi free — for two hours a day, at least. They bought the Clover coffeemaker company and feature its fancy coffee at many of their stores. And in my neighborhood, they’ve opened two locations that serve beer and wine, screen local films, and have live bands. Oh, and those locations aren’t called Starbucks. One is called Roy Street Coffee and Tea. Neighbors call it Fauxbucks. Or at least I do, and I like the place.

In other words, Starbucks has admitted that they were losing to mom and pop stores. But emulation can only get them so far. The sui generis Starbucks locations, even if they appeal to indie coffee shop patrons, can’t be cheaply replicated in 10,000 locations.

Robert Spector, the author of The Mom & Pop Store, which profiles small retail businesses from New Jersey to Tokyo, says mom and pops are always barely surviving. If it’s not Wal-mart tying the noose, it’s changing consumer tastes, or a competing mom and pop, or the internet, or a family crisis, or a recession.

But Spector has found no shortage of successful enterprises–hat shops, cheese shops, hardware stores, restaurants–and his favorite coffee place, Hotwire Online Coffeehouse in West Seattle.

Now, opening up a coffee shop in Seattle isn’t exactly a revolutionary idea – and that’s what Spector told Lora, Hotwire’s owner. “She said, ‘I know, but I did my due diligence, and I knew that I was going to bring my own entrepreneurial vision to it,’ — and she has done that,” Spector says.

“When people think or say, ‘Well, gee, all the mom and pop stores are gone, Wal-mart or Home Depot has devoured them,’ that drives me crazy. I say, look around you. The dry cleaner, the independent coffee shop, the dress shop, the plant shop, they’re all around you.”

That’s why Spector talks so much about the relationship between a business and its customers in The Mom & Pop Store. “That personal touch and that connection to the community is what can separate independent retailers from the chains,” is how he put it to me. I initially dismissed this is as sentimental, something consumers say they want but aren’t willing to pay for, even if it means their old main street looks like pulled teeth because everyone went to the mall instead.

Devil dogs: filling a micro niche

But my own neighborhood’s experience says it doesn’t always happen that way. “This neighborhood has become such a locus for interesting stuff,” says Michael Wells, who used to own my local bookstore and now heads the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce.

Wells mentioned another newcomer, Po Dogs, which he calls a micro-business. “It’s better to be more specific than general these days,” he says.

I’ve been to Po Dogs. It’s a little sliver of a place on a low-rent street. They serve a bacon-wrapped hot dog called the Deep-Fried Danger Dog. They just opened their second location, near the University of Washington.

Weird little retail businesses endure not because the economy needs them, but because consumers want them and the market delivers. There are some games chains and big box stores just can’t play–and when they figure out how to play, independents will have invented the next game. Your favorite store may go under–it’s happened to me so many times it hurts to think about it–but the form itself will endure.

So please, no eulogies for the mom and pop store. “There’s always room for a cool idea, a cool way to present something,” says Spector, “whether it’s a new product or something that’s been around for thousands of years.”

Michael Wells is equally optimistic about the future of small retail in Seattle. “Ten years from now it’s going to be magnificent,” he says, “as long as there’s no earthquake before then.”