Lacking the traditional neighborhood loyalties that their shopkeeping predecessors could often take for granted, today's small retailers are creating community organizations themselves from scratch. But there's a twist: Not only do they work together to demand frequent garbage collection or decent street lighting, as retailers always have, they also combine to organize promotional galas, to conduct consumer surveys, and to buy large-scale advertising.
This presents no simple challenge, particularly since shopkeepers are usually too busy running their stores to take time out for meetings or to haggle with city politics. Even when they do take the time, their often feisty individualism sometimes prevents them from reaching a consensus. Still, in several cities, retailers have developed ingenious ways to overcome the rift between their need to band together and their reluctance to spend time or money in doing so.
In Philadelphia, for instance, downtown small-store retailers formed a private company that devotes itself exclusively to the concerns of store owners in what Philadelphians call Center City. A staffed, nonprofit organization, The Center City Proprietors (CAP) spends annual dues from close to 400 members on a variety of services. These include reduced group-health plans, affordable advertising packages, year-round seminars on business topics, promotional events, discounted credit card rates, social gatherings, and more. This year alone, CAP has added 120 new members.
In St. Paul, Minn., the 22-year-old Grand Avenue Business Association (GABA), once an innocuous street organization formed by a few earnest retailers, has grown increasingly aggressive over the years. As more shopkeepers opened stores along the avenue, and as business in the area thrived, GABA's promotional events, such as The Grand Meander and Grand Old Day, became mammoth organizational undertakings.That created what economists know as a free-ride situation: GABA members exhaust themselves organizing the affairs, while nonmembers reap as many benefits as members. Nonmembers also profit from GABA's lobbying efforts, retail surveys, and general neighborhood upgrading. Recently, in an effort to involve all Grand Avenue retailers in its activities, GABA and a local bank have been working with the city to enact legislation that would turn Grand Avenue into a special-assessment district. Under the arrangement, shopkeepers would automatically pay fees based upon store size to a central management -- which would direct retail affairs along Grand Avenue. In the past few years, California, North Carolina, New York, Washington, Maryland, and Pennsylvania have all enacted legislation for similar special-purpose districts.
Along North Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, Calif., shopkeepers have solved the problems of meetings and dues by avoiding organization entirely -- relying, in true 1960s style, on The Correct Way of Thinking to enforce community standards. What's correct? According to local satirist Alice Kahn, whose new book Multiple Sarcasm features an essay she calls "berkeley Explained," the litany that governs the area includes the following nostrums: Food is nurturing, so consuming food is good. Clothes are superfluous, so buying clothes is bad -- unless the fabric is 100% cotton, linen, or handmade, and the designer tags are inconspicuous. Franchises are bad. Chains are big and bad. Commercial rent control is debatable; residential rent control is wonderful. (It frees up more money for retail expenditures.)
Remarkably enough, businesses in the area do indeed seem to thrive or fail depending upon their affinity with such values. You can look long and hard along North Shattuck Avenue for a fast-food franchise or clothing chain, and you don't have to look hard at all for a natural-foods or handicrafts store. When a mortuary was razed and a minimall erected in its place, local shopkeepers dubbed the project The Dead Center and ignored it. Sure enough, shops within the mall have been subject to constant turnover. Malls are bad.