According to Reuters's Phil Wahba, "[t]he wave of bankruptcies that has eliminated dozens of U.S. retail chains could force landlords to rethink their traditional aversion to having small, independent retailers as tenants."
I have to admit, the idea of smaller mom-and-pop retailers resuming a more prominent place in American consumer culture is tremendously appealing to me. I understand full well that many of our larger brand name stores have earned their ubiquity through genuine hard work, honest business practices, and the development of desirable products. I also appreciate the convenience large chains bring to our communities, so I am not rubbing my palms together, gleefully heralding the downfall of Corporate America. What I am celebrating is, essentially, the potential renaissance of the small businesses upon which our economic system is built.
With the convenience of enclosed, air-conditioned pedestrian malls came the precipitous decline of Main Street and, with the decline of Main Street, the loss death of many small retailers. As Matther Bordwin explains to Wahba in the Reuters piece, mall "landlords prefer to deal with national chains with proven track records and credit profiles, rather than take a chance on an unknown independent store, or wind up dealing with countless small tenants," so smaller retailers were rarely invited to the party. Thus, with customers skipping on-street parking and exchanging cracked sidewalks for tiled flooring, stores in smaller downtown locations lost business and, without access to the mall crowd, lost money and vanished.
The tragedy in the loss of small businesses, of course, lies in the loss of their potential for idiosyncrasy. Large chain stores such as Barnes & Noble or Borders, for instance, rarely vary their stock beyond a certain pre-determined range of titles. With the exception of a few local interest titles, you are just as likely to see the same books in Albuquerque as in Baltimore, Anchorage, Flint, Topeka, or Slidell, Louisiana. In other words, if Barnes and Noble just doesn't think a book will sell at a certain rate, it won't appear on their shelves, which is a problem when their shelves are the only ones a person can browse in a given region. Smaller stores often offer deeper niche catalogues in lieu of broad popular catalogues and owner-operators tend to be much more knowledgeable about their wares than your average box store retail employee. For this reason, small stores and large chains can coexist nicely, offering convenience on one hand and expertise on the other, as they often do in large cities. I look forward to a bookstore that carries Journey to the End of the Night and William Saroyan and I look forward to more hand-sewn clothing and I welcome custom skateboard shops and a DVD outlet with a great selection of 50s musicals -- not because I necessarily want Saroyan or a new frock or new Habitat deck or some MGM sing-along disk, but because I want the variety, the sprawling, hiccuping, gurgling bouillabaisse of choice to reinvigorate an economy that is both stagnant and stale.