What is the future of active streets when business is being funneled off to the internet retail to wholesale?
Here are two things I do a fair amount (other than working and parenting): I think about how cities work, and I walk around my neighborhood in Oakland. Lately, I’ve been noticing how much of the retail space in my neighborhood is either empty or clearly doomed. Ford’s Fine Furniture on Grand Avenue is the latest to surprise no one by putting up CLOSING SALE signs in their window, but how much further behind can Silver Screen Video be? How long will a video rental with lots of square footage of retail space last in the face of Netflix and Amazon? What about that wedding dress store? And there are so many storefronts already empty.
I won’t miss Ford’s or either of the other stores (I would miss Walden Pond Books, and so we try to shop there a lot), but the thing I’ve been asking myself is this: If there are so many whole categories of stores that really just don’t make sense in an Internet economy, what does? What SHOULD move in when Silver Screen Video moves out?
In answering that question, my first thought was, okay, what seems to be doing well in my neighborhood these day? Well, nail salons and dry cleaners are clearly holding their own, and I see a lot of martial arts studios and places like Gymboree, where you take your toddler for an hour of inside play with other kids. The former are services and the latter are where you buy activities, not goods, and that makes a lot of sense. But the biggest category that’s thriving in the Grand Lake neighborhood is restaurants. Half a dozen appear to be thriving on Grand Avenue, several of them relatively new, and another half dozen just few blocks away on Lakeshore. They are taking over spaces that formerly held furniture stores (Camino) and shoe repair places (Boot and Shoe Service), but mostly they’re replacing really bad restaurants or fast food places with healthier, tastier options (Flipside, Chipotle, Kwik Way.)
So I’ll draw the unscientific conclusion that people seem to like the experience of good food near their homes. You can’t order a night out at Boot and Shoe Service from Amazon, and you’ll never be able to. But we can’t eat out all the time, and the options for good groceries in my neighborhood, and in most neighborhoods, fall pretty far behind the options for dining.
This has gotten me thinking about a business someone should start, or at least explore. I grew up in car-unfriendly New York City and back then you bought your groceries on the way home from the subway to the house. Sometimes that meant going to the A&P on Broadway for bigger items, sometimes you just stopped at the bodega on the corner if all you needed was milk and eggs. The bodega visit took about 60 seconds, so it was preferable. Now the closest store to our house is a Safeway, and while I suppose we’re lucky to have it there, overall it’s not what I want. The quality of the food is pretty low, it takes a long time to get in and out, and the experience does little to strengthen the feeling of being part of the neighborhood. We can walk to Safeway (with a large parking lot, it’s a driving destination for most people), but we tend to drive instead to get better quality food at Piedmont Grocery, Berkeley Bowl, or even Whole Paycheck — I mean Whole Foods. What we really need, though, are good bodegas, built in areas where people walk or would walk, but bodegas that carry more than milk and eggs, that devote more of their space to broccoli and less to beer.
I’m not exactly the first person to observe this, and I’m sure many people have much more insight into why our local corner stores tend to be so pathetic as purveyors of food items other than chips and wine coolers. But I did start thinking about some ideas of how to approach this problem from an entrepreneurial perspective, and I keep thinking I wish I had more time to explore this idea. So here, for what it’s worth, is my someone-else-should-try-this plan:
Reinvent the local corner store. Bi-Rite has done this. My very first apartment in San Francisco was steps from a traditional corner store (not on the corner in this case, but whatever) that sold liquor, chips, and a scattering of actual food items. Thatf place has since become famous by reinventing itself as a source for local, organic, healthy prepared food and groceries (and making some of the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted). Sure, it’s in an area where people have money, and where most people really value these options and are willing to pay for them. But more and more people do, and are.