Why Neighborhoods Need Bricks and Mortar

[Glassware in the window of Practical Goods.]
One of my favorite shops in all of St Paul is called Practical Goods on Randolph Avenue. It’s a thrift store type of thing that sells lots of antique-y, vintage, and thrift type of stuff, only the woman who runs it, Wendy, has a particular emphasis on “material culture.” She requires that everything there be actually useful in your everyday life, and will happily explain to you, for example, the difference between a corn pot, a soup pot, and a stock pot, why rubber boots are great for puddles, or how to use a mill-style coffee grinder.

If Practical Goods is open, Wendy will be sitting at her desk and available to chat. And sometimes, especially on slow days, when you buy something she’ll give you her flier about why supporting small businesses is good for neighborhoods:

[Wendy's flier.]

Wendy’s point here is that internet commerce is bad for cities. This is something I’ve heard before (except in Seattle). Each year, more and more retail activity shifts online, away from actual “bricks and mortar” stores. This is one of the big reasons why Best Buy’s stock has been going down the toilet, and why Target is spending so much energy trying to reduce “showrooming.” Ask anyone who sells used books or antiques, and that same problem is plaguing local old stuff merchants as well.

Sure, there are lots of great reasons to shop at Practical Goods. But right now I’m interested in the part of her flier that points to urban design issues, the intangible benefits that an actual store provides within the city. Foremost on this list is tax base for the city, but Wendy also adds in public bathroom. (It’s a good one, too.)

I’d make a few more additions to the list:

Eyes on the street -- Jane Jacobs' idea that shopkeepers, snoops, and just-plain-folks-with-eyes make a neighborhood safer and more stable by being there, aware and able to call out or call the police, or just to help people if they need anything or something crazy occurs. Sitting as she does each day in her shop with the window before her, Wendy is a great example of a eyes on the street, and probably does a lot to improve the atmosphere of Randolph Avenue.

Interesting window displays, sidewalk wares -- as I mentioned recently, having interesting windows and things out on the sidewalk makes walking worthwhile. Well, Wendy's shop is one of the best! Each day she puts out a series of practical goods on the sidewalk, things like rakes and a rainbow of rubber boots lined up near the street tree. Her windows are wonders, and put smiles on faces of anyone with feet.

Walkable neighborhood node -- sidewalks are almost useless unless there's somewhere to walk. We need more mixed-use stores in our neighborhoods, more little shops like Practical Goods where you can buy something you might need like a pair of moccasins or a navy teapot.

Listen up, my fellow generation! Everything can’t go online. Imagine a Twin Cities without antique stores or bookstores or record shops. I’m fine with everyone shopping online instead of at exploitative corporate big boxes (ahem - Trader Joe’s). But if you’re going online to buy skillets or 45s or local music instead of at Practical Goods or Hymie’s or the Electric Fetus just to save a few dollars, why not move out to Blaine, cut out the middleman, and speed up the urban lobotomy?


Anonymous said...

I shop frequently at Practical Goods for the value; but also for the quality. Unlike so much produced for the big companies here, by slaves over there, these are good quality, durable items that last, much of it American and European made in the 40's, 50's and later. PG has a homey atmosphere, Wendy is a good person at providing conversation and - that kind of business is good for business; and the neighborhood.

Alex said...

This is a great post. It is not enough to supplement your online shopping or Walmart shopping by buying stuff at local stores on occasion. If we are to assemble a society out of the loose agglomeration of individuals that live in an area called the Metro, we need to stop buying online and save our money for real people at real stores owned by real neighbors.