The enduring wisdom of Mom & Pop

A new book on family-owned retailers provides a lens on the future of Seattle's neighborhood development. It's not just a matter of retail style; it's about values.
A Sun Valley promotion for Mom & Pop stores

A Sun Valley promotion for Mom & Pop stores SunValleyOnline

Walkable streets mean viable shops

Walkable streets mean viable shops City of Seattle

One of the attractions of urban density is the ability for everyone to walk to the store, to have one's commercial needs met within a few busy blocks. We all like the idea of living near a great cafe, a small grocer stocked with locally grown produce, maybe even a shoe store, pet shop, or bike repair place.

But it's often easier to build dense housing than it is to nurture grassroots retail. The ecosystems for housing and retail sometimes don't match: Even people who live in walkable neighborhoods find that the variety of nearby shops won't suit their needs, so they might walk to the corner convenience store for a quart of milk, but they still "need" to drive to one or two or three larger grocery stores to get the variety and prices they want.

And many small businesses are still heavily reliant on street parking, which is now being rationed and comes at a premium. Some businesses need to draw on a city-wide customer base to survive (I doubt if Archie McPhee's lives on foot traffic alone for its toys). If cars are squeezed out, a shop can lose much of its customer base, and can't necessarily (if ever) bridge the gap until a promised influx of local condo-dwelling newcomers arrives.

New development also can drive out many of the existing small retailers. Gentrification is part of it: Developers tend to build for higher-end residential customers, but local retailers can't afford the new ground-level rents and they might not offer products and services that the gentrifers are looking for. A Southeast Asian market might be dislocated by a vegan donut shop. Or new residents might simply be out of sync with old uses. I remember when the Sightline Institute's Alan Durning lived without his car for a year, he analyzed the retailers within walking distance of his home in North Seattle and discovered a huge percentage of them were auto shops.

There are other problems confronting urban village fantasies, for instance the macro-economic trends that aren't solvable at the local level. Who among us wants to live on a grocer's salary, or work those hours? One of the hardest working guys in my old neighborhood was Mr. Cohen, the Jewish dry cleaner. I don't think the average Boeing dad ever worked those kinds of hours. Seattle views itself as a haven for the "creative class" that will inspire the next Amazon or Microsoft, but who's going to do the creative classes' laundry?

Then there are the myriad ways in which city and state rules, regs, and tax laws seem designed to put barriers up for business owners: the B&O tax, head taxes, square-foot taxes, permits, garbage fees, noise ordinances, and sometimes micro-management. Earlier this year I watched the Seattle Landmarks Board board argue for what seemed like an hour about what kind of bolts a shop owner should use to hold up a single sign in Columbia City, bolts that would be invisible to the naked eye.

Seattle does have many vibrant urban commercial districts that seem to work. Columbia City, Wallingford, Queen Anne Hill, and West Seattle leap to mind. But an unsung, and under developed, aspect of urban village life are the smaller corners and mini-districts throughout neighborhoods that help disperse services and make them more walkable for some, even without big density increases.

In the neighborhood I grew up in, the Rainier Valley slice of Mount Baker, our single family residential neighborhood was denser than now (thanks to the baby boom) and had lots of local retail. We could walk a few blocks on any direction and find a locally owned store where we could get supplies, and I was frequently sent running errands to these places. I wandered around the old neighborhood recently looking to see what had become of some of them.

The Dallas Grocery (30th Ave. S and McClellan), run by Greek immigrant Mr. Dallas, has now been remodeled as a hair salon. Dallas' was one of those places where a box-boy would deliver groceries to your home if you asked — a pre-Amazon shopping service my aged grandmother took advantage of. McNamara's drug store (McClellan and Mt. Baker Blvd.) once supplied necessities to the locals. It's in a mixed-use complex of commercial and residential, but the shops are now specialized. The old drug store is a now Pilates studio.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Sep 3, 7:23 a.m. Inappropriate

Niggling point. Archie McPhee is no longer in Ballard. They moved to Wallingford. They're in an old liquor store at the corner of 45th and Stone Way with parking along one side of the building.

Posted Thu, Sep 3, 7:30 a.m. Inappropriate

Fixed, thanks.

Posted Thu, Sep 3, 8:41 a.m. Inappropriate

Vegan donuts? You big city folks sure is spoiled.

Ross Warm Beach

Ross

Posted Thu, Sep 3, 9:01 a.m. Inappropriate

Hooray for Mom & Pops! Madison Park Hardware (recently featured on the cover of the Madison Park Times)is my hardware store of choice. Lola the owner and her son and daughter run the store. They offer personal knowledgeable service. The big box hardware store can nerver come close to offering the level of service, knowledge or friendly presonality.

I remember the big snow storm we recently had Scott opened the store on a Sunday (normally closed) just so neighborhood kids could buy a sled or adults a snow shovel.

We need a square foot tax against the big boxes and redistribute the funds to keep the Mom & Pops in business.

Auggie

Posted Thu, Sep 3, 9:18 a.m. Inappropriate

Small stores are well and good, but a lot of Seattle has no sidewalks, so in those areas sidewalks should be every small retailer's top priority.

smacgry

Posted Thu, Sep 3, 9:42 a.m. Inappropriate

Good food for thought, in the ongoing dialogue about quality of life in Seattle's "urban villages." More illuminating storytelling in this vein can be found in "Independent America: The Two-Lane Search for Mom and Pop," as well as the sequel, "Independent America: Rising from the Ruins," by Seattle filmmakers Hanson Hosein and Heather Hughes:

http://www.independentamerica.net/main_movie.html

-- Karen Rathe

rathe

Posted Thu, Sep 3, 11:11 a.m. Inappropriate

I grew up two blocks from that old coca-cola sign on 36th. I remember walking down those stairs on the hill, wishing every day somebody would turn it back into a corner store. But I did the next best thing which was walk the extra four blocks to the Mekong market or the now defunct Emerald city Grocery. About seven-eight years ago Chubby & Tubby's Closed which hit home the hardest for me, all I've got left is a red cab with their logo.

Posted Thu, Sep 3, 11:11 a.m. Inappropriate

Two points I'd like to add:

First, Local ownership is particularly meaningful when you consider the economic impact to our community. If I head across town to buy my copy of Spector's book at Barnes & Noble, the profits are shipped off to the corporation's headquarters on Fifth Avenue in New York City, to be distributed to their shareholders. If I buy the same book at Queen Anne Books (a few blocks away from my house), the profits stay in the community - maybe even in my own neighborhood.

Second, it's worth noting that "locally-owned" is only one important dimension of mom-and-pop entrepreneurism. Another is "owner-operated," the wonderful sense that the person you are trading with is personally invested in their dealings with you as a customer.

CP

Posted Thu, Sep 3, 11:30 a.m. Inappropriate

Great piece that points to why current density plans might not perform as hoped. Skip, your too kind to those whose ideological theories think that successful walkable businesses can be created by zoning or planning theories alone. It takes much more.

Planners can sit in an office, draw lines on a map to designate an area for transit development or urban villages, but unless there is an sophisticated plan to insure shopkeepers will flourish in those locations people will drive to where they can buy what they want. With the current mentality of Seattleites if they can’t drive to where they choose to shop the are as likely move to where they can. Recent Crosscut articles suggest that may be a small part of what’s happening with strong growth outside of Seattle.

The unrecognized reality is the turnover or failure rate in small neighborhood businesses is devastating unless they happen to have a unique speciality, along with access to parking where they can draw from a much larger area. The current theory is, if you pack in enough people the “right kind” of business will flourish without cars.

Few if any current planners, architects and academic theorists have ever run a small business. They haven’t a clue what it takes for a small business to survive and compete against major chains or punitive city fees, lack of free parking, or city tax structures applied to small business.

Most mom and pop’s flourished before “shopping centers,” “strip mall’s,” “Costco’s,” “Wall-mart's,” “Fred Meyer,” or “Safeway” superstores. In the mom and pop era there were small hardware stores, appliance stores, lumber yards, cleaners, shoe repair shops, meat markets, bakeries, rental lockers for frozen foods, most have disappeared because times have changed and and the services they provided can no longer compete with price or selection found at the big chain stores.

Seattle’s leadership once sponsored a conference of experienced urban administrators to discuss what makes a downtown or neighborhood business district successful. The meeting lasted several days with some big name contributors from all over the country. Their conclusion seemed simplistic, but so obvious. They said, “successful urban centers had the following.” Entertainment, affordable food, competitive prices, appropriate selection of goods, a way for people to get there and the perception of public safety.

There already are some successful small business areas and communities and more can exist, but it takes more than high density zoning to create an environment where it all works. Success is part luck, hard work, common sense, the creation and maintenance of amenities, parks open spaces and so many other seeming minor things like lighting, trees, places for people to sit, clean well maintained, streets and greater efforts with public safety.

It’s an interesting thought, but consider: Theorists encourage cities and developers to build density for profit, but most developers don’t own, run, or manage what they build. That’s left to small business and shopkeepers. Maybe we should give them more consideration.

KK

Posted Thu, Sep 3, 11:51 a.m. Inappropriate

crown heights: I too miss Chubby and Tubby (or "Chub's and Tub's" as my mother called it). They kept me in jeans and flannel throughout childhood. That little business district at Rainier and Walden has been through some really interesting changes throughout the years and seems it has some interesting potential now that light rail is nearby.

Posted Thu, Sep 3, 11:58 a.m. Inappropriate

CP: Good point about "owner-operated," which is a big part of the benefit.

As to chains, Spector cites some bookshops, like Village Books in Bellingham, as exemplars of being more than what they are. Village books is a community center as much as a bookstore, and a fine one it is.

Spector also defends some chains as helping small business. Costco, for example, is a place where Mom & Pops can get affordable supplies. So they have some value to the retail ecosystem. Also, people point out that the proliferation of indie coffeehouses is in large part due to Starbucks' popularizing, and creating demand, for coffee drinks, a trend now turning on itself as Starbucks now is opening faux indies.

Posted Thu, Sep 3, 12:49 p.m. Inappropriate

One interesting aspect of Seattle, visible at many bus stops, is the way shadowy remnants of old shops are still to be found at these nodes. We usually think only rail transit is permanent enough to get shops to open at their stations, but Seattle bus stops have been there a very long time and they reflect an earlier era of butcher shops, candy stores, bakeries, and pharmacies that used to be far more prevalent and widespread.

Might there be some ways, maybe working with Metro, to gently nudge these storefronts back to life? Start by making it easy for artists and startups to occupy them, maybe with discounted rent for the first few years. Maybe a coffee shop could get some small fees from Metro by letting bus riders wait in the shop, out of the rain, with a digital display sign to alert them to the next bus's arrival. And give some incentives for live-work space in some of these old spaces.

Posted Thu, Sep 3, 1:02 p.m. Inappropriate

If it's too late to save the old mom and pops (RIP Georgetown Pharmacy — http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/health/2009788753_pharmacy02m.html) at least we can try to ensure they have a fighting chance in the future.

David — interesting concept — where would the rental subsidy come from? Metro itself?

Posted Thu, Sep 3, 1:46 p.m. Inappropriate

Interesting ideas. Another issue brought up in Roosevelt is the size of retail space: large NC3 spaces will attract chain stores (or remain empty, as most of Vulcan's space on Westlake has), while smaller spaces are friendlier to someone starting up a new restaurant or clothing store. I'm also staring to think that the low-margin "big box" chains will implode due to rising transportation costs, but others argue the exact opposite, saying that Wal-Mart will be the winner with its no-frills logistics. I guess time will tell since we're all predicting the future.

I'm not at all convinced that free parking is the answer. For example, a study of San Fransisco's Columbus Ave shopping district found that only 14 percent of shoppers arrived by car--and they spent less. The business owners were shocked at the stats, because they thought all their customers were driving:
http://sf.streetsblog.org/2009/02/20/the-myth-of-the-urban-driving-shoppers/
I'd like to see similar studies of Seattle-area locations like Fremont.

By the way here's Alan During's "One Mile from Home" post:
http://rss.sightline.org/daily_score/archive/2006/04/05/one-mile-from-home

joshuadf

Posted Thu, Sep 3, 4:35 p.m. Inappropriate

Two approaches for keeping small businesses, especially displaced ones, in the neighborhood is to have an active loan/technical assistance organization on a local or city level to help the firms. Many times all the owners need is additional marketing or business management consulting assistance or a short term loan. Perhaps the incentive zoning system can be tweaked to provide for subsidies or affordable rents for displaced businesses.

PCO371609

Posted Thu, Sep 3, 6:21 p.m. Inappropriate

There is much confusion on these posting about small businesses, retailers etc. The discussion above mentions small businesses in general, small business retailers, small business restaurant and food owners.

Small businesses is any business that has a certain limit of employees. Small business are I think are generally doing well in Seattle. They can be retails, consultants, restaurants, etc. Many of Seattle's smaller businesses are home businesses which actually add to the vitality of life in a neighborhood.

There are small retailers (Mom and Pop) stores, which generally sell products made elsewhere to neighborhood residents. They are generally decreasing in neighborhoods. This is a major retail change that is occurring nationwide. Amazon is a good example of this change. There are quite a few smaller retailers in Seattle's neighborhoods that are doing well, however they tend to be destination retailing, of which Fremont is a great example.

Seattle neighborhood business districts are incredibly vibrant with Seattle's Mom and Pop restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries and food stores. They make Seattle's business districts I claim more vibrant than they were 20 years ago, more attractive to residents and provide activity day and night seven days a week. They keep money in their communities and employee neighborhood residents.

It is time for baby boomers to accept the change in retail and enjoy Seattle's vibrant business districts.

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