Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Everybody Loves Main Street, Part One

By Emily Adelman.

PART 1: There’s No Place Like Home

For those of you who have lived near downtown Wheaton for a long time, you probably associate this eclectic little district with some place that you’ve gone to for years – such as Marchones, Wheaton Studio of Dance, or Showcase Aquarium. There’s likely several other businesses that are no longer here but remain as placeholders for some of your personal memories, such as The Anchor Inn.

The chances are very slim that you take a walk down memory lane when you gaze upon what I like to call the Ghosts of Retail Past: the former locations of Circuit City and Office Depot.

There’s something intuitively attractive and nostalgic for most people about Main Street and the unique small businesses that inhabit it. Even before President Obama started to use “Main Street” as a personified character cast in contrast to “Wall Street”, we have long celebrated the iconic local business as an ideal in our culture. It’s where everybody knows your name. It’s the diner you go to with your buddies at least four times a week. It’s the barber shop where you only get your hair cut once a month but where you stop in once a day.

Now, not every local business is as cheery as a Boston pub and not every local business lends itself to being what Ray Oldenburg coined the “third place” – the living room away from your living room, if you will. However, locally-owned and independent businesses typically can offer many advantages that may not give you a warm and fuzzy feeling but are still reason enough to stay local. Apart from not having to travel far to get what you need, high on the list of advantages are that the staff is frequently knowledgeable and the customer service is intentional. Some good examples of this are your local hardware store (Strosniders) and the independent pharmacy in your neighborhood (Upscale Care Pharmacy in Silver Spring; Kensington Pharmacy).

There’s also one particular myth that needs to be dispelled, such as the one that assumes that prices are necessarily higher at local businesses than at chain stores. They’re not. Do the experiment yourself. I’ve done several price comparisons in my day and I can offer you the results of one having to do with dental floss. I checked out Kensington Pharmacy and the CVS located in the same shopping strip on University Boulevard. My dental floss of choice (and I’m very particular about my floss) was indeed available at the independent drugstore, and it cost ten cents less than the same product at the chain store.

Okay, great. Everybody loves Main Street. So, you ask, why is this relevant?

When I listen to news about the state of the economy, it seems like we’re facing a monster that is too complicated to deal with: it’s global, it’s sliced up into pieces and insured and sold, and it involves ethereal things called (somewhat ironically) “futures” and “securities”. The good news is that the bread and butter of it all starts at home and there are things that we, and our local policymakers, can do to help re-establish stability in the local economy.

For the consumers — that’s us — it means shifting some of our purchases to local, independent sources.

...Stay tuned for Part 2: The Multiplier Effect...

Emily Adelman is currently working with Local First Wheaton, an alliance of independent businesses, to produce the Wheaton Shop Local Guide that will debut in May 2009 at The Taste of Wheaton. She also is working on the Buy Local Silver Spring campaign and helped produce a guide to over 200 locally-owned establishments in downtown Silver Spring.