Monday, May 24, 2010

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

This week's newspaper column: (Read it in the Hattiesburg American.)

What’s in your neighborhood? If you’re lucky, a few locally-owned businesses.

A century ago, before automobiles came on the scene, almost all retail trade took place with small family-owned neighborhood businesses. The alternative? Travel a day or more by train, horse, or shoe leather express to make a purchase. Except for a handful of chain stores like Sears Roebuck, all business was local.

In today’s world, with the freedom of travel that cars and cheap energy affords, there seems to be no end to the proliferation of big box stores hocking everything from books to pet supplies. The Wal-Martification of America has completely changed our buying habits and our landscape.

But consider the neighborhood business; there are still a few of them around. Step through the front door and the first person you see may very well be the proprietor who happens to know you by name, or at least by face.

I’m sure you’re familiar with some of Hattiesburg’s locally-owned businesses like Moore’s Bike Shop, T-bone Records, The New Yokel Market, Coney Island, and Southbound Bagels to name a few. Visit one of these neighborhood “institutions” and you’ll be treated to richness of character, personality, and service that you will not find in big box America.

In contrast to slick building prototypes designed to get “consumers” in and out as fast as possible, the more personable environs of local establishments encourage patrons to linger long enough to have a conversation, visit with friends, and exchange ideas. Thus local artwork circulates on the wall and live or recorded music by area musicians is not uncommon. The neighborhood business is a social and cultural incubator.

Owner-operators have a stake in the community. They are your neighbors and are working hard to improve the local quality of life. They take care of their property, get involved with local issues, and unlike national retailers, profits earned by local businesses recirculate within the community.

And while national retailers construct buildings scaled for cars, neighborhood businesses respond to human proportions. The smaller footprint of a local shop fits beautifully into the fabric of real neighborhoods within walking distance of where people actually live. The horizontal chain store “landscrapers” with their oceanic parking lots are, at best inaccessible and at worst hostile, to the whole idea of livable neighborhoods.

Let’s do a little exercise.

Pick your favorite local business. Think about what the area would look like if that business did not exist. What would be there instead? A run-down shell of a building? A weed-grown lot? And how would your social life change?

Now, do the opposite: Imagine what the landscape would be like if there were many more neighborhood businesses, each with its own unique character. How would that change the physical landscape? And how would that add to the richness of your social life?

So be kind to yourself and support a neighborhood business next time you shop.


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