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.
Crosscut archive image.

Walkable streets mean viable shops

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.

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.

The Cash Grocery (36th S. and York Rd.) near John Muir Elementary school has been converted into apartments. The only indication the lower floor was once a grocery store is an old Coca Cola sign that still hangs on the building. York's Grocery (S. Walden and Rainier Ave.) was torn down, but became a Vietnamese grocery, Mekong Rainier, during the post-war Southeast Asian immigration. It's now been there for over 25 years. The Beanery (S. Hanford and McClintock), across from Franklin High, was a candy/malt shop that served many generations of students. It closed years ago and was torn down for a single family home.

With light rail in Mount Baker, "transit oriented development" will likely create more opportunities for new businesses and multi-family housing, but I wonder how integrated that development will be with the larger fabric of adjacent neighborhoods. In other words, there seems to be some benefit at having small retail dispersed, rather than only just concentrated, partly for the sake of convenience. But it also could have the benefit of not ghettoizing small business, but rather making it part of the broader live/work fabric.

Robert Spector is a Seattle writer who is an expert on retailing and has written books on Amazon and Nordstrom, among others. This month he has a new book out that is really worth reading with an eye toward how to nurture small urban businesses. The book is, The Mom & Pop Store: How the Unsung Heroes of the American Economy are Surviving and Thriving (Walker & Co., $26). By Mom & Pop, Spector really means small, privately owned businesses. Spector was raised in one, his father's butcher shop in Perth Amboy, N.J. The book is divvied into three major parts: one is a look at his own life as a guy who was raised in a Mom & Pop shop. He also looks at examples of Mom & Pops around the country, then profiles some of the one in his own neighborhood, West Seattle's California Avenue.

Mom & Pop businesses are alive and well, but they're struggling too. Small retailers have been especially hit hard by the recession. Sales at privately owned retailers fell almost three times more than at corporate retailers since the first of the year, according to one study. It's partly reduced consumer spending, partly a recession shift to WalMart discounts.

But Spector says that Mom & Pops are incredibly resilient as a form. Family owned or controlled businesses still make up 90 percent of all US businesses. Mom and Pops have survived every bubble and retail trend, and they're highly adaptable because they have to be. In the Darwinian world of retail, Spector says, it's not the strong but the flexible who survive. "That's why, after the apocalypse, the only survivors will be cockroaches and Mom & Pop stores." Mom & Pops can be nimble, cater to current local tastes, adjust their hours, the pay of their employees (mom & pop's own take-home), add special services. Some do this so well they grow up to be corporate giants, he says, citing Nordstrom and Pizza Hut.

But the essence of Spector's argument is that these shops survive because we need them, because the commercial transaction is as basic as the need for air, food, and water. I have something you need, I sell it to you at a fair price, and we both go away happy. That's the essence of community, the basis of how we live, the cornerstone of social interaction. Spector sees retail as intensely personal, and Mom & Pop businesses as the living expression of community. Planners might cite urban character and fizz as something to strive for; Spector see vibrant commerce as at the center of what a city really is. And that vibrancy is due to the values that Mom & Pop's embody: a market in which honesty, fairness, service, hard work, belonging tend to be rewarded over the fast-buck, the impersonal transaction, the cookie cutter approach.

Spector makes clear that he doesn't see the Mom & Pop as a throwback: times change, so do neighborhoods, ethnic groups come and ago, cities rise and fall (see New York flourishing, Detroit crumbling). Even family continuity isn't guaranteed: Only a third of family businesses survive to the second generation, only 16 percent to a third, only 3 percent make it to four or more. The change creates new opportunities. Yesterday's butcher shop is today's cupcake cafe or urban dog parlor.

Spector doesn't have to go far to see what he likes. He takes us on a tour of his West Seattle stomping grounds, from Easy Street Records to Hotwire Online Coffeehouse, from the Husky deli to Alki Mail & Dispatch, which he describes as "West Seattle's watercooler." In these and other cases Spector profiles proprietors who do what they do out of love, passion, an interest in community, a desire to create and be a part of place, as well as make a living.

But it's not a science. There is a craft, and maybe even a little magic, in becoming a treasured neighborhood icon, or a place customers want to come back to. Sometimes, Mom & Pops are successful even when they make business decisions that would look "bad" on paper, like Hobby's, the Newark, N.J. deli Spector describes that gives a free sandwich to any person who comes in and says they're hungry and haven't eaten. Why? "Because no one walks away hungry from Hobby's."

Nurturing small business is tricky, and no one complains more than a city of shopkeepers. But Mom & Pops have legitimate beefs. Spector says that in Seattle, the square-foot tax is the bane of many small business owners. He writes:

In Seattle, the tax people came up with a bizarre, convoluted new tax on square footage — which is derived from a combination of floor space and revenue generated outside Seattle city limits. I won't bore you with the details, but a certified public accountant as quoted as saying "I don't think anyone's written a more complex, less intuitive taxing statute that is harder to comply with."

But beyond annoying taxes, zoning limits and regulations, it's tough to make Mom & Pop businesses flourish by striving for higher densities or boosting transit service or building bike lanes. The bigger, broader civic issue is values. Spector writes that successful Mom & Pops all share these:

1) a desire for independence, 2) a distinctive entrepreneurial belief that what they are doing is special, 3) passion, 4) persistence, 5) a willingness to work hard and do whatever it takes to get the job done, 6) a connection to their community, and, most important, 7) an ability to adapt to change.

So we can look at how we, as a community, measure up. Are our residents here to settle and invest, to sink their roots, to help their neighbors? Is the social fabric, as well as the regulatory climate, conducive to variety, diversity, and creativity? Are we a city that encourages self-reliance and independence up and down the class strata? Do we help each other adapt to change, do we resist it, or do we let it steamroller us?

Seattle is in the process of re-writing the rules for the multi-family code, of looking at revamping neighborhood plans, of pushing new strategies for goosing growth and development, of capitalizing on huge investments we've made in light rail. We have mayoral candidates who promise to bring new vision and change the status quo. The boom years of big development have given way to different times. Perhaps we can find better answers for shaping the future if we really think about the place Mom & Pops have in our civic future.

Robert Spector will be hosting a celebration of Mom & Pop stores at Town Hall on Sept. 23 from 7:30-9pm; $5


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.