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My downtown, your downtown

August 26, 2009

It’s wonderful to be back in Old City.  This side of town thrives on quirky shops, galleries and restaurants, in addition to the tourist behemoth that is the Independence National Historical Park (INHP).   One of my favorite spots is Foster’s Urban Homeware at Market & Fourth Streets.  I stopped by to pick up a little something for my mom (but ended up with a little something for me instead) and noticed their window featured a decal promoting the 3/50 Project.

I was a fan of the concept even before I knew the official “Project” existed.  With a goal of saving small, independent businesses operating on main streets,  the project asks “which three independently-owned businesses would you miss if they disappeared?”  They encourage you to “Stop in.  Say hello.  Pick up something that brings a smile.  Your purchases are what keep those businesses alive.”

According to the Project, if half the employed population spent $50 in local, independent stores each month it would generate $42.6 billion in revenue.  (Wow!)  So, get that?  3 stores — $50 (that’s where they got 3/50) and $43 of  that money, they note, stays in and benefits the community (which it doesn’t when you shop the big chain stores or — horrors! buy online)

I support the general notion, though it is redolent of the common wail “support your local newspaper because they are having trouble competing with the internet” or “support your favorite publisher and/or independent bookstore because they are having trouble competing with the chains and/or Amazon.”  I think we need to support local stores and creative entrepreneurs.  (As well as our newspapers and bookstores)  I believe in supporting our  Main Streets and their effort to define “community” and serve as a social center as well as a place of commerce.  But I don’t think we can frame the argument in terms of “instead of the internet.”  

Just go ask the old-time radio guy about what they thought would happen at the dawn of the Age of Television.  We’re all part of the redefinition of the way the world works, moving faster than fios!  This is a time of change and it remains to be seen just how different the future will be from “the good ol’ days when there were books and stuff printed on paper.”

Small shops and the downtowns they live in crashed for a variety of reasons and have been struggling back ever since.  The National Trust for Historic Preservation established its wonderful Main Street program to provide expertise and guidance to help small independently-owned businesses revive their town centers and draw shoppers (and dollars) away from the mall and big box stores.  In addition to the Main Street website, NTHP has also recently published Revitalizing Main Street:  A Practitioner’s Guide to Commercial District Revitalization. For exclusive online content on everything from “Getting Started” and “Identifying Business Niches” to supporting entrepreneurs and balancing independent/chain stores click here.

One might argue that these brick and mortar stores are not competing with the internet (because they should all try to have a web retail presence as well) but competing with other brick and mortar stores (malls, big box) about the notion of what a preferred shopping experience ought to be.   

Not long ago I was in the charming downtown of Chestertown, Maryland (which happens to be a National Historic Landmark District — the Gold Standard of historic sites in the U.S.; the town served as a major port from 1750-1790 and each year recreates its own historic “tea party” which took place as protest spread following Boston’s unceremonious dumping).  It was a sidewalk sale day, complete with balloons fastened onto parking meters (free parking!) and merchandise ready to buy without even having to go into a store!

meter balloonThe thing is, Chestertown is always an event for us and we always make a point of going there and we always make a point of spending money when we visit.  We dine.  We stroll.  We soak in the atmosphere.  We hang out at the coffee shop.  We stop to ask complete strangers if we can pet their adorable dog.  We finger the bindings of used books at either of the two! used bookstores across the street from each other.  My kids insist on stopping in Twigs & Teacups to spend their allowance because it is the kind of store where anyone can find something that will delight them.  We also have our annual fall tradition, when we head to the funny little shoe store to buy our back-to-school shoes.  It’s a tradition that started when I bought my toddler-aged firstborn a pair of red keds which emerged from the stockroom in a box that must have dated from the mid-1970s (at the latest!).

We sit in the park with its delightfully sparkling Philadelphia-made Victorian fountain, where the children make wishes on pennies and point at the cast-iron ducks and lions spraying water and the maiden and her urn at the top.  We delight in the farmer’s market on the square each Saturday and, if we stopped to think about it, are probably continuing a local market tradition as old as the square itself. 

We go because we love it.  We have an emotional connection with the place itself — the wide streets, the small-scale buildings, the memorial cannon, the clock tower, and on and on.  We go to smile and meander and feel part of a community.  We give, we get.  Everyone’s happy.

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