Fighting for Mom and Pop
For the first half of this decade, former lawyer Virginie-Alvine Perrette traveled through New York City's five boroughs, capturing the gradual dwindling of local business life with her handheld camera. She filmed thank-you letters posted on deserted storefronts, interviewed owners as they sold their final, discounted inventory and consulted authors and academics on the larger context of the neighborhood store. The title of her finished, 36-minute film, Twilight Becomes Night, is borrowed from author John Barth's description of change:
"No-one can say, 'It is exactly here that twilight becomes night," Barth wrote in The End of the Road. "Suddenly one realizes the change has already been made, is already history, and one rides along then on the sense of an inevitability, a too-lateness."
After a recent screening in New York, Inc.com caught up with Perrette to learn more about the discoveries she made during the filming process, her collaboration with her subjects, and her plans to salvage the small-business scene.
You worked on this film for six years. What inspired the project?
Growing up here, small businesses were a huge part of my childhood. People always say, "I'm so sorry you grew up in New York, it must have been overwhelming," and there is that aspect here, but there's also that aspect of neighborhoods and small stores. When I moved back here in 1999, I realized that a lot of the stores I had gone to as a child were closing or already closed, and larger stores were moving in. That probably did something to me emotionally, but as I started to research it, I learned more about the issue from an economic standpoint and what it does to our community when these stores leave. It became less my own personal emotion and more of a realization that I felt this was a message I had to get out there.
What about the filming process surprised you the most?
That it wasn't all about nostalgia. I realized there was a much more real and potentially harmful side to all this that we weren't discussing. I started off thinking it was a "save the mom and pop" emotional story, when in fact it was an economic story where these businesses bring more to the community than a chain store. And it was a question of our societies and communities becoming more isolated. These stores actually connect us.
Part of your film argues that congregating around a community businesses is almost synonymous with modern civilization. What do you think has caused us to steer away from this ideal?
There is this kind of misguided belief that the market is making things happen and we should just let the market decide. And we as consumers think that if this store closed, they weren't doing well, they weren't competing, so the big chain store should prevail, when in fact it's not a level playing field. The large stores can operate at a loss in certain areas. We've gotten to a place where we think it's validating to have a Starbucks and a Target and a Home Depot in your community, that somehow it means that the community was doing well. I think what's so devastating is that often the chain stores wreak havoc on a community economically and socially. In the end, it's not a beneficial thing, but people like going to any city in the United States and finding a Starbucks or a Borders without really thinking about the ramifications.
Your film includes a number of emotional moments between customers and storeowners -- moments you filmed on the last day of a local store's existence. How did you get access?
Part of it, I think, is that I shoot everything myself. It was just me and my camera, nobody else. I also think the storeowners realize that while one day these stores are here and the next day they aren't, there is no reporting of that disappearance. The owners and I had the same understanding of the importance of this subject, and I was really thankful to them because there were definitely personal, intense emotional moments during those last few days and hours and minutes, and it was a privilege to be there.
Besides the movie, what are you doing to raise awareness to the issue of small stores disappearing?
On my web site, twilightbecomesnight.com, I have a sample letter that you can send to government officials. I don't have a distributor and the film is an odd length, so I think it's going to be more of a home-grown, grassroots effort of getting it out there. I'm trying to organize screenings as much as I can and have at least a question-and-answer session afterwards, if not have other experts. I'm really more of a filmmaker and not an expert in this area. That's the key, to get people to talk about it. People say that after seeing the film, they walk down the street and see things slightly differently, and I'm so happy to hear that. Once you start talking about it, you do actually see things differently.