Disappearing Acts

Store ClosingWhat’s up with all the independent stores closing? I don’t know what it’s like in other parts of the country, but I’m disturbed by the number of retailers who either have store-closing sales or worse, just suddenly aren’t there anymore.

Within the past few months alone, here in our small corner of Silicon Valley, first a cute little store called Purrsnickety announced its store-closing sale. Actually, Purrsnickety was just the front of the store; the back of the store – with its own entrance – was Bowwowser. As you might surmise, they were for pet owners or friends of pet owners in search of anything feline or canine.

Then our local lighting shop closed. It was a wonderful alternative to chain stores, with a repair and supply shop in the back that could handle almost any problem and replace any bulb.

Then suddenly, the tropical fish store was gone. I used to go in there once a year, at the beginning of every swimming season, to get a small net with which to capture tiny leaves and debris when I was in the pool. Apparently that wasn’t enough to support the business.

I’m trying to figure out what’s going on here. If the economy is improving, why are stores disappearing? Did they hang on as long as they could, waiting for the upturn, and then discover even that wasn’t going to help?

I have a feeling there’s no single reason for these closures. Purrsnickety was in downtown Los Gatos, a pretty ritzy place; when the economy improves, rents go up. It’s hard to absorb a rent increase after years of slow sales and before things really improve.

The lighting store had a prime location on the main retail boulevard on the peninsula, El Camino Real, along with a huge parking lot. Its building has already been razed, preparing the site for who knows what.

As for the tropical fish store, I wandered in there once not for a net, but to consider whether I wanted an aquarium (this was before the idea was vetoed by the spouse). The area in the front of the store, chockablock with softly lit tanks filled with colorful aquatic life, was enticing … but when I wandered into the back, where the empty aquariums sat, I was aghast. It was disorganized and filthy – and made me wonder about the health of the fish in the front of the store. Maybe too many people were obnoxed (i.e., to come in contact with something obnoxious) by those conditions.

Nor are these disappearing acts limited to independent retailers. The same strip mall where the fish store was also lost a Papa John’s pizza franchise this year. Borders is already gone, and retail analysts are wondering if Barnes & Noble is next. I’ve been assiduously patronizing a small independent bookstore here in Sunnyvale, but even I, upon the purchase of an iPad, bought some e-books, if only to relieve the stress on our bookshelves. (If you’re reading this, Leigh, I’m sorry.)

Coincidentally, while all this is happening, a friend of mine recommended a Facebook group called “Do You Remember The Old Palo Alto?,” where people – no matter what their age – leave their memories of growing up in that community. Perusing those comments made me realize that I’ve been losing touchstones for years – the old German delicatessen long gone, the variety store long gone (are there even variety stores anymore?), the hardware store that’s now part of a chain.

The city of San Francisco has an antidote for this trend: it doesn’t allow stores with more than 11 U.S. outlets in its outlying neighborhoods. When a European chain wanted to establish stores in the United States, it technically adhered to the restriction, but some citizens immediately wanted to amend the law to include global companies. I’m not sure that’s the answer, since, while it maintains individuality, it punishes efficiency. What happens when entrepreneurs create a business that grows beyond 11 stores? They have to leave San Francisco?

So I’m left with a bitter mix of nostalgia and ambivalence. We’re constantly losing touchstones. The world is constantly changing. While I don’t want to live in a world populated solely by chain stores, nor do I want to live in a world where the government mandates who gets to benefit economically and who doesn’t.

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About middleagecranky

The Middle-Age Cranky blog is written by baby boomer Howard Baldwin, who finds the world, while occasionally wondrous, increasingly aggravating.
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4 Responses to Disappearing Acts

  1. Howard, the small retailer must have something truly unique to offer — if they’re going to compete with the huge selection of merchandise from Amazon and Walmart online. Moreover, when you consider that the typical niche retailer today has such a small loyal customer base, some owners just decide it’s not worth the investment in time and effort to stay in business one more month.

  2. Ellen says:

    Mom to 15 year old daughter, upon walking into Hiron’s, a variety store/institution in South Eugene: “Do you know how special this is?” Mind you, this is a place where you can find anything, so long as there’s somebody available to cut it down from the ceiling. This is a place where a harried mom can run in and say, “I wouldn’t suppose you have fairy wings, would you?” and be told “Left side, aisle five.” My girl didn’t even take a beat to skim from housewares to joke gifts to garden tools to candles to greeting cards. “Yeah, someday I’ll miss this.”

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