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Localist is as localist does

In conversation a couple of nights ago, a bunch of us were talking about localism and chain stores. I was reminded of something I saw a decade ago, when we lived in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. There was a locally owned and operated coffee shop in the neighborhood, but it struggled for business. The coffee was good there, and the interior was attractive. But the owner was unwelcoming, especially to moms with strollers. Back then (and, I imagine, today), there are no small number of stay-at-home moms pushing babies around the neighborhood. My wife was one at the time, and she, like her mom friends, wanted a place outside the home to get together for talk and coffee with each other.

This guy’s militantly localist coffee shop was not that place. If memory serves, he had a “no strollers” policy.

So, word gets out that Starbucks is planning to open a store a couple of blocks away. Local Guy goes nuts, raising holy hell about how we can’t allow this corporate chain to defile our neighborhood with its industrial coffee and cookie-cutter aesthetic. Mind you, Cobble Hill was the kind of place where that kind of argument stood a decent chance of gaining traction, given the cultural mores of the neighborhood. But it didn’t. Why? Because the new Starbucks welcomed moms with strollers, and you didn’t get attitude from the baristas there. It really wasn’t any more complicated than that. I don’t remember exactly how long pissy Local Guy lasted, but he had to shut his doors. And nobody I knew missed him one little bit.

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22 Comments To "Localist is as localist does"

#1 Comment By Nate On January 19, 2012 @ 10:20 am

My brother lives in a cute little town where the sports bars still allow smoking. When we go visit him and his family, we are forced to go to Applebees and Chilis when we want to go out in the evening with the fam, since these chains don’t allow smoking, even though there is no city ordinance to that effect. So you have these ma and pa sports bars with fantastic food that are half full during the big game, when the Applebees down the road is full.

But those little ma and pa owners, they’ll change their smoking policy over their dead bodies. Too bad. We’d love to go to these places. But I’m not bringing my kids into a place that reeks of smoke.

#2 Comment By Rob On January 19, 2012 @ 10:34 am

Nate: You and your cosmopolitan values–you’re party of the problem!

#3 Comment By MIke On January 19, 2012 @ 10:41 am

I’ve always had the feeling about the demise of local bookstores. I love a good bookstore, but I don’t shed tears about poorly stocked, cliquey bookstores that end up failing because they can’t compete with B&N. Running a bookstore isn’t like curing cancer or doing God’s work. It’s a business. And if your business isn’t able to compete with B&N or Amazon because you haven’t kept up with the changes in the market, that means you are a poor businessperson and it is not a reflection on customers who decide to show other places.

#4 Comment By Katy On January 19, 2012 @ 10:48 am

As much as I love to support local business, the big box places are often MUCH more accommodating to their customers. I think they don’t take for granted that customers have choices about where they spend their money. My husband and I had a coupon for a German restaurant here in Dallas. When we arrived for dinner on a Saturday evening and pulled out our coupon to present it to our server, he didn’t waste any time in rudely telling us the coupon could not be used on Friday or Saturdays during peak hours. SO? We left and went somewhere else. We work full time, and Friday and Saturday nights are the only time we have enough time to relax and go out! It’s ridiculous to expect people to put forth extra effort to spend money at a particular business. Either you want my business or you don’t. Simple as that. And it’s just not always worth the effort to support local business if they’re just going to treat people like crap.

#5 Comment By Katy On January 19, 2012 @ 10:49 am

(Oh, and the above mentioned Dallas German restaurant charges extra for bread. So, they shouldn’t be surprised when people decide to hit up Olive Garden for bottomless salad and breadsticks.)

#6 Comment By JustMe On January 19, 2012 @ 11:08 am

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Park Slope, which is stroller-central, and I’ve never run into a Starbucks. I’m sure there’s one around, but they’re not common in the area I tend to visit, and at this point in Park Slope’s development, you really have to be pro-stroller to attract customers.

I suspect there may be a difference between recently-started locally-owned businesses which have to cater specifically to the current residents, and longtime, established businesses which are still operating on a business model and trying to appeal to a customer base that existed during the decade they were first established but is no longer dominant.

#7 Comment By Dave D. On January 19, 2012 @ 11:24 am

Maybe he had good reason. Maybe he didn’t want screaming kids in his coffee shop, that would disrupt his other customers above and beyond the benefits that those moms would bring. Maybe strollers clutter the narrow aisles of his store, causing other customers problems. Maybe he didn’t want his bathrooms fouled with diapers. Maybe stay at home moms aren’t the clientele he is wanting his store to service.

Rod, no offense, but I keep getting a “Localism is cool only if it benefits me” vibe. Small businesses will always be less efficient, struggle with issues, have higher prices and less selection, and reflect the values of their owners. You seem to want big city performance, in a small town package.It really doesn’t work that way.

#8 Comment By sea octopus On January 19, 2012 @ 11:36 am

“I’ve always had the feeling about the demise of local bookstores. I love a good bookstore, but I don’t shed tears about poorly stocked, cliquey bookstores that end up failing”

I always hated the fact that many of those local bookstores also had cats for some reason. That faint hint of cat urine and the allergy attack inducing dander is what keeps me away from those stores…

#9 Comment By Sam M On January 19, 2012 @ 11:45 am

I agree. Localist is as localist does. But at the end of the day, everyone has their reasons for choosing chain over local. People bust up Wal-Mart supporters al lthe time. But people go there for a reason. The selection is better. The prices are better. Probably most important of all, the hours are better. Two income households don’t do much shopping from 8 am until 5 pm. But that’s when mom and pop want to operate.

The militant localist reponse is usually pretty… militant. People’s lives are out of order. They should not be two income families. Or they should not value more convenience or lower prices so highly. Do without! Do more with less! Rearrange your schedule! Consumerist goons! Re-order your life!

Of course, all of these same arguments could be made against anyone’s preference for any chain over mom and pop.

Ultimately, to makle localism work, someone has to sacrifice preferences. It’s just that nobody wants it to be their preferences.

#10 Comment By Erin Manning On January 19, 2012 @ 12:04 pm

Dave D., if the guy had other customers, he wouldn’t have had to fold when Starbucks came along. The adults-only crowd which faints at the sight of babies would have holed themselves up in his little enclave and shrieked together about what the neighborhood was coming to.

Sounds like this guy was pretty much a jerk to everybody. Being a jerk isn’t sound business policy, unless you hope to attract people from dysfunctional families who like being abused as your main customer base (I kid, I kid).

Oh, and the diaper thing: believe it or not, moms are pretty concerned about germs and debris, and try not to “foul” public bathrooms. It’s men’s rooms, by and large, that look like a herd of wandering buffalo with diarrhea and an aversion to flushing have been through the place (and no, I will never clean public restrooms as part of my job description ever ever again).

#11 Comment By Elijah On January 19, 2012 @ 12:17 pm

Are you guys referring to Jorg’s in Plano? I love local restaurants like that but their prices haven’t matched the quality and the service has been hit and miss.

#12 Comment By KMT On January 19, 2012 @ 12:40 pm

“You seem to want big city performance, in a small town package.It really doesn’t work that way.”

The assumptions in this statement are both transparent and questionable.

#13 Comment By Sam M On January 19, 2012 @ 3:03 pm

“It’s men’s rooms, by and large,”

I don’t know much about coffee shops. But I have worked in bars, and I can tell you that ther ladies room was always, always much worse than the mens room at the end of the night. So much so that it was shocking.

#14 Comment By David J. White On January 19, 2012 @ 3:21 pm

I always hated the fact that many of those local bookstores also had cats for some reason.

Cats are one of the things that many of us who love local bookstores love about them, but if you are allergic I can certainly understand why it’s a problem.

#15 Comment By David J. White On January 19, 2012 @ 3:30 pm

Katy, I hope you called or wrote to the restaurant and told them why you left, and why you won’t (I’m guessing) be coming back. Businesses need to hear why potential customers are dissatisfied. It’s one thing if business owners choose to be jerks; it’s another thing entirely if they are simply clueless about the way their policies might be driving away potential customers. A smart manager would have invited you to come back on an evening convenient to you, assured you that your coupon would be honored, and maybe even comped you a dessert. It would be an investment in the possibility of creating a satisfied customer who might spread positive, instead of negative, word-of-mouth advertising.

Whenever you choose not to patronize a place, especially if you have actually gone there and have decided to leave, you should always tell the management and give them a chance to improve. They may really not know why potential or former customers are dissatisfied. If they get enough feedback, they may make some changes. If they decide that your comments don’t matter because you aren’t their target customers after all, or decide to be jerks, then it’s their problem.

#16 Comment By Nate On January 19, 2012 @ 5:09 pm

Sam M is right. (Might this be the first time I’m disagreeing with Erin Manning? I usually always agree with her!)
I voice the sentiment of most all who have put years into the restaurant world: women’s bathrooms are worse than men’s.

Another thing about the actual topic at hand: Louis CK of all people has some interesting things to say on a not-to-long-ago appearance on Opie and Anthony. You can YouTube it. He was making the point about the ma and pa video store, a now relic of a bygone era. He said that they were much better than Blockbuster’s for a host of reasons. The hosts raised the point that they would often have to wait until a video came back from being check out at the ma and pa store, but a place like Blockbuster had ‘guaranteed to be in’ movies (remember the entire wall of Rush Hour 2 back in the day?).

Louie responded, and I paraphrase to make him P.G.: “Well, then you have to freakin’ wait until it’s on the shelf. Wait a couple days. It’s better that way. Customers are too unreasonably demanding today.”

Customers are unreasonably demanding today. I wonder how much of this is true…

#17 Comment By JonF On January 19, 2012 @ 5:48 pm

There’s a pool and hot tub store out in our suburbs that I initially visited (for bromine) when I first moved here. Not only is their bromine much pricier than Lowe’s (I do expect some price premium when shopping local), but the owners are about as personnable as well made bricks. They missed their calling: they should own a repo business where being nice to people is a defect.

Nate, that bar with smoking probably has some long time customers who smoke, hence the lenient policy. And personally I’d rather have smoking in a bar or club, given industrial strength ventilation, than have the smokers shunted out to some little smoking porch or pavillion, which, if semi-enclosed (and many are) turn into cut-it-with-a-knife smoke chambers, far worse than a large, ventilated space would be. (Most of my friends smoke, and it is annoying and I’m sure unhealthy to spend all my time with them in such places.)

Sea Octopus: at a guess the cats are intended to control rodents, which are not above gnawing on books.

#18 Comment By Erin Manning On January 19, 2012 @ 9:08 pm

Well, Nate and Sam, I won’t argue. 🙂 The only time I had to clean restrooms was at a college, and the men’s were definitely worse. Perhaps it was simply because for many of the men it was their first time to live away from home, or something.

I admit to having no knowledge whatsoever as to the condition of bar restrooms, so I’ll defer to Sam on this one. 🙂

#19 Comment By Erin Manning On January 19, 2012 @ 9:46 pm

Back on topic, though: having lived in small towns and small cities as well as larger ones, I have to say that when small, local businesses are run right, you can’t beat them, and will sometimes even pay a tiny bit more because of the intangibles: friendly service, delivery or gift-wrap options, the little ways that the savvy small business owner will court your business. But this can misfire, too: I remember a craft mall in a rural area not far from where we live now; I say “remember” because the place is not in business any longer. The woman who ran it was a friendly soul. Too friendly. Followed-us-all-over-the-store friendly. Tried to interest us in furniture we told her we honestly didn’t need or want friendly. When it came to that “Oh, yes, that rustling you hear overhead is the squirrels in the attic…got to do something about them one of these days–now where’s that broom…” followed by her frantic efforts to shoo the squirrels away from the various holes in the ceiling before they could drop on our heads, we realized it was best if we made our purchases and a quick getaway–er, polite exit. (Which was a shame, because some of that woman’s craft suppliers were truly talented and creative people, judging by some of the really unique items for sale.)

In addition to the too-friendly small business owner, watch out for these:

-The pushy owner, who is going to make a sale come hell or high water;
-The know-it-all, who knows better than you what you want (and it’s always more expensive than what you actually want to buy);
-The sad-luck owner, whose tale of financial woe and brave struggling is accompanied by sad looks should you leave without buying or purchase only a small item;
-The child-hater, who will glare at you even if your child is better behaved than most adults;
-The child-lover, who will shower your child with such extravagant compliments and tell you over and over what a great parent you must be so that you justify blowing the budget a bit in that shop;
-The “don’t ask me” owner, who stocks his store with all sorts of fool stuff that people like to buy, but knows nothing about any of it and gets annoyed at being asked;
-The high-markup owner, who feels entitled to inflate prices as compensation for being stuck in a boring, musty shop all day and doesn’t get why you don’t agree…

…I’m sure there are many more. In fact, there’s probably a whole set of different ones for small restaurants and coffee shops.

#20 Comment By Sam M On January 20, 2012 @ 8:50 am

Erin,

I could tell some tales about those restrooms. But this is a family blog. All I can tell you is that I worked with some very rough customers, and they were equaklly shocked. This wasn’t a biker bar by the time I worked there. College kids and middle-class people from the ‘burbs and tourists in Fell’s Point, Baltimore. I have seen the same pattern roll out in settings too numerous to count.

Now, regarding the point at hand:

“I have to say that when small, local businesses are run right, you can’t beat them, and will sometimes even pay a tiny bit more because of the intangibles”

I think that “tiny bit” becomes the problem. To be just a tiny bit more expensive, the local operator has to slash costs by reducing staff, reducing hours, etc. At which point the price is much less of an issue than convenience. In my experience, one of the main reasons people don’t shop at local places is that the local places are not open when people want to shop.

Maybe the locally owned shoe store should close from 8 am until 5 pm, and work 5 pm until midnight. Of course, this means giving up on retirees. So the solution is to work two or three shifts, which is unworkable.

The other solution is for people to readjust their lives and find a way to shop when the store is open. But NOBODY is willing to do that in terms of the things they care about.. Even people in the FPR universe sing the praises of scotch from Scotland. Why? Well… because they prefer it. They won’t choose something else for the same reason the single mom buys something from Wal-Mart on the way home from work on a Tuesday evening rather than making a special trip to the local store on Saturday. Where she will also pay a tiny bit more. Which to her might not be a tiny bit.

Where I live, the exception appears to be specialty store. I live pretty close the the largest gun store in Pennsyvania, which is saying something. The people there know everything about guns. I mean everything. People will pay substantially more for a gun at that establishment. That fact leads to lots of volume. Which leads to more staff and better hours which, eventually, leads to competitive pricing.

Maybe you can pretty much tell what a community cares about by taking a look at which retailers survive. People here care about guns. A lot. Do they care about shoes? A few small specialty stores selling workboots and hunting are still around. But other stuff? People want it on the cheap at Wal-Mart. Or they buy that stuff in Pittsburgh at another Big Box center a few times a year.

#21 Comment By Naturalmom On January 20, 2012 @ 9:15 am

It’s true that locally owned shops can sometimes be less than welcoming. But they can also be havens of tolerance. I used to love shopping at our local food co-op with my toddler and preschooler. It was small enough that they couldn’t really wander off very far and both the staff and the other customers were by-and-large happy to see them pushing the kiddie carts through the isles and declaring loudly what they wanted. They even let kids scoop from the bulk bins as long as they were supervised by a parent. I still feel quite loyal to them as a result.

#22 Comment By alcogito On January 20, 2012 @ 12:48 pm

JustMe who lives near Park Slope, which I assume is in Brooklyn, has never seen a Starbucks there. Seems hard to fathom. Within 3.5 miles of us are three grocery store complexes which all have a Starbucks inside AND a full size Starbucks store outside within a few hundreds of feet. Of course, it IS the Seattle area.