Is Retail Dead?

Grandma Advertiser told us this week that Foshee Management is going to start in earnest on mixed-use properties on Dexter. They’re calling it the Montgomery Market District, which is a little odd because a) Dexter Avenue is a name known around the world and b) there’s no market there, unless they mean the slave market, which was right there, and they can’t possibly mean that, can they? Anyway, they’ve bought a domain name and set up a website for this part of town. This website informs us that Dexter used to be called Market Street. Perhaps it was renamed for a reason.

Quibbles about the name aside, the idea of retail returning to downtown is pretty exciting — especially given that it’s struggling around the city right now. The Look left Five Points for Zelda Road and is now shuttered. Talbots closed over there too, and there’s been no replacement for some time. M. Bagwell’s been closed so long we’ve forgotten what it looked like inside. Locally-owned hardware stores are vanishing. Ciao Bella moved down to that trailer/incubator down by the Alley; the Mulberry Street businesses seem to be in a constant state of turmoil with a few exceptions, perhaps because it’s hard to park over there. The Dandy Lion seemed so promising and is now suddenly closed. There’s a weird absence of retail in the Alley development itself. And although there are some bright spots (the Herb Chateau is a welcome new business, as is Hue Studio over in the A&P lofts, and Fairview Homebrew seems to be doing fine; of course we can’t mention everyone here, please don’t write), there’s just not a lot of places to buy interesting stuff around here. Which is weird.

Except that it’s not. This week The Atlantic ran a piece called “Radio Shack is Doomed (and So Is Retail)” that delivered some sobering facts about shopping. Amazon, it turns out, is more than three times more efficient at selling products than the competition. That’s part of the reason this chart (from the article) looks the way it does:

Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 1.25.58 PM

This is part of why Zelda Road looks the way it does – tons of tutoring businesses, health places, food options, but not a lot of shops.

Ever since a trusted local business owner told us that retail was dead, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this matter. Driving around our town and others, we’ve asked each other: What store would you put there? What makes this street so cool and this other street not so cool? The answer seems to be a mix of establishments. Bars and restaurants are cool and all, but they’re generally more hopping at night. What about daytime options? What about contributing to the arts and culture vibe of a city? As much as we’re not into rank consumption, tangible things remain important to our lives, just like everyone else.

I know Montgomery’s not New Orleans, but one of the things that makes the French Quarter so fun is its abundance of awesome used bookstores. And other shops – not the big tourist/gator head/hot sauce emporiums, but places like the store where they hand loom rugs. We were in Memphis a year ago and visited a cool neighborhood with a great record store and a few other shops worth wandering into after we ate a great vegan meal and picked up an awesome cup of coffee. Down in Mobile, they’ve opened a big cavernous vintage/antique/junk shop type place downtown – it doesn’t seem like it would work, but it does. Birmingham’s Five Points has a great eyewear store, a shop with strange gifts, a health food market which covers all of your incense-and-hippie needs and an amazing record shop. The Second Avenue development has What’s On Second (highly, highly recommend) and a few other places to complement the bars, restaurants and cafes there. Albuquerque’s Central Avenue has an amazing mix of one-of-a-kind retail, food, bars and cafes, even with the recent addition of an Urban Outfitters.

There’s something about a well-curated shop or two that makes a neighborhood special. We’re not talking about a chain store; we’re talking about someone who lives in your neighborhood picking out things for sale that they think other people in the neighborhood might like. When you transact with this person, you’re not just buying a thing. You’re transacting with your neighborhood, engaging in a conversation whose currency is nominally monetary but even more important than mere coins and bills.

Up in Decatur (Morgan County), we wandered into a cool shop that combined a performance space with records, comics, vintage clothing and a few arcade games. This was perfect – the kind of place where you want to chat with the owner, spend some money, and even meet some people you might like to know. We think RAD! Vinyl Records Shop over on the Atlanta Highway is promising. Why didn’t that shop get tax credits invited downtown to make the Alley a more interesting place? As it is, it’s a drive-to destination, rather than someplace you  might shop before meeting friends for a drink or a meal. Retail is social; this is a major thing the big boxes miss and something Amazon will never capture. Sure, your trash bags or dishwashing detergent may not be a social purchase, but buying a well-made shirt or a vintage mirror might be. Or could be, which is the point here. Retail should be aspirational, not merely (only) transactional. As much as some of us make fun of the artisanal facial hair boutiques of Brooklyn, they do provide a particular retail experience not offered in the current market – these folks should be celebrated as entrepreneurs even as their sideburns are relentlessly mocked.

We’re not merchants and have never run a retail shop, but we keep asking ourselves what we would sell, given the chance. Sure, we’d love to run a bookstore – not to compete with Capitol Book & News, but to complement them. We know that record stores are having a hard time right now, but they have an awesome one down at the planned Seaside community in Florida. And we know Montgomery’s not the richest place in the world, but there are folks here with disposable income, especially if you give them well-priced stuff and a good shopping experience. We need more antidotes to Wal-Mart, something different and more human-scaled than Eastchase. It’s probably only a matter of time until Eastdale goes under too, then the city’s going to have another dead mall on its hands with no schools willing to move in. Is retail dead, or does it just suck?

Maybe people shop online not just because it’s convenient, but also because shopping is pretty unpleasant at the big box stores. Maybe the chain stores are too predictable, and you can find something more interesting online at Mod Cloth than you can at Ann Taylor. These are not insurmountable obstacles. Painted Pink over on Mulberry does it right, even if their clothes aren’t for you. They have outstanding customer service and great communication with the outside world (they post pictures of new clothing regularly on their Facebook page). When you go in there, even if it’s just to browse, you feel like you’re being let into the closet of someone with very specific taste. A great store is like a great museum: It’s specifically organized, with rotating exhibits and leaves you feeling good afterward, even if you didn’t buy anything.

But of course, you need to buy stuff. If you don’t, retail operations fail. We could set up a couture gowns store in the Alley, and everyone would come in and coo over the merch, and we’d be out of business before we could even make a single rent payment. So it’s clear that shops need to offer a mix of the affordable and the aspirational – heck, even Wal-Mart knows that. You might admire the new lawnmower but walk out with a deeply discounted pack of Axe Body Spray – still, they got you in the door and relieved you of some of your monthly paycheck.

For starters, the city should invest in supporting a store for local artists like the Christmas pop-up shop downtown. Except it should be permanent. On a recent long layover in the Minneapolis airport, I was delighted to find a store specializing in local products. This was evidently the product of a special initiative. It makes the airport about a million times better (that, and they have pinball machines on every concourse). It’s too much to ask for something similar at Montgomery’s tiny airport, but it should certainly be part of the Market District, if not the Alley. You could say that there’s not enough local craftwork to fill a permanent store, but I’m sure that’s false. Even if it’s true, that’s a chicken-egg problem. Artists are encouraged to produce when there’s an actual place to sell their stuff, not clawing for attention on Etsy.

Also there should be a store that sells weird stuff. A mix of vintage and new, like the Tip Top Atomic Shop in Milwaukee would be cool, even if rockabilly’s not your thing. One key will be not to poach other retailers, even though I just said we think RAD! Records should be in a different place. Maybe Montgomery can’t support two record stores just yet, but if you want to build a vibe downtown where young people want to live and work, you need to give them places that sell cool things to spend money on. Definitely a junk shop should be high on the list – lofts need interesting furniture, and paying top dollar for loft living means that you might need a slightly cheaper coffee table.

Obviously, there should be a cool coffee shop. It should also sell stuff, like books and stationary and cards. It should also have a performance space and a pinball machine or two, while we’re dreaming. Chris’ Hot Dogs shouldn’t have a pinball monopoly in this town any longer! The Standard up in Birmingham is awfully nice as a model for using old space, but could be combined with a little retail for added interest here.

Most importantly, there needs to be some kind of grocery store — one kind of retail that will never go out of style and isn’t likely to be eroded by online buying. The lack of one stymied downtown living in Los Angeles for many years. Sure, there’s not going to be a Publix downtown anytime soon, but there needs to be a functional market where people can get milk and eggs and canned goods without paying a fortune. The mayor should do everything in his power to get a Trader Joe’s downtown. That would bring people in from all over town, lifting the boats of other retails shops there.

On Dexter Avenue, which seems like an improvement over Market Street even as you can learn (as we did) how Andrew Dexter got the street named after him. This guy, in an alternative future a Apex Predator-level Goldman Sachs employee, was a Rhode Island banker who bought sight unseen land in Alabama and moved in aggressively to found New Philadelphia, across the fountain from Alabama Town. If you’ve ever wondered why downtown streets meet at weird angles, Dexter’s partly to blame. At first, Montgomery was two cities that merged around an Artesian well (also the slave market site) – read Who Was Dexter Avenue, Anyhow for more. In any case, this guy was kind of a swindler. He ran a bank that failed its shareholders in spectacular fashion in the early 1800s, even as he set aside land for what would become our state capitol. He gave some of his land to be used as a burial ground, but himself ended up in an unmarked grave somewhere on the way to Mobile, not even 50 years old.

This is the global brand we embrace? Fairly you might ask after the costs of remaking it into the Market District. But Dexter is the one that took us to the dance. He performed in a predictably clumsy way at first but warmed up later, surprising us with his innovative footwork much later on, dipping us in ways we hadn’t expected until our whole world changed. Why are we ditching him? Andrew Dexter was our city’s first failed retail experiment. We should still embrace his inadvertent and lasting legacy, at least when it comes to the delightful narcissism of branding.

Maybe you’re of the Olive Garden school, where it’s commonplace so guaranteed; maybe you’re of the Chipotle school, where it’s known and therefore good; maybe you’re of the El Rey school where people you know know it so it’s good. Wouldn’t you rather be on Dexter than in the Market District? Wouldn’t you rather say you’re a few blocks from the failed Subway or Dr. King’s church or close to the failed Winter Building with the alleged shackles in the basement? You don’t have to be Cayce Pollard to feel like something dangerous could be afoot here. We say to Montgomery: Make the right decision. As crazy as it might be, being a little more New Philadelphia than Alabama Town might be the right direction for our fair city right now. Minus the racism, and the oppression/appropriation of indigenous peoples. Is that even possible these days? And can we add charming well-priced gifts?

We’re doomed.

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6 responses to “Is Retail Dead?

  1. The Goat Hill Museum Storee is a great little retail spot; a second, smaller location would be a fine addition to the airport.

    http://www.preserveala.org/goathill/index.html

  2. I’m eager to see something, anything happen at the Graham Woods and M. Nagwell locations in Cloverdale. Those are PRIME spots that are sitting stagnant.
    Apartments are coming soon to the immediate area. Businesses need to open and capitalize.

  3. “For starters, the city should invest in supporting a store for local artists like the Christmas pop-up shop downtown. Except it should be permanent. ”
    YES! I loved the pop-up shop and went several times while it was there, buying from different artists. This is a perfect idea for downtown retail.

    • Wendi, Thanks for the good word about the pop up shop! Sorry I didn’t see this sooner. We are working to find the right home, format, and partners to bring a more permanent local artist shop to life. It is the next leg in my own personal 3rd space crusade. So far we’ve found the community, partners and space for Foomatic (Makerspace) , and Ampersand (co-working) and each of them took 2-3 years to incubate from idea to reality. Keep an eye out on the Better Block Montgomery page for more info on what may be next. To that end I would like to invite anyone that wants to experiment with the kinds of venues mentioned in this article to email me at joebirdwell AT Gmail DOT com to help us make the next Better Block or Pop Up Shop a success. We are working to educate local property owners about the value of pop up shops/ehibits/ect and working to help put together the temporary leases and whatnot that will make it easy for these kind of ideas to take hold.

  4. “The mayor should do everything in his power to get a Trader Joe’s downtown. That would bring people in from all over town, lifting the boats of other retails shops there.”

    YES PLEASE!!! I live “across the river” and don’t do my grocery shopping in Montgomery, but if there was a Trader Joe’s I’d go every week! Seriously, Montgomery. Make it happen.

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