Direct to you from Janet Simons, author of the Colorado Smart Shopper and veteran Rocky Mountain News shopping columnist
The beginning of a new year is traditionally a time for reflection. January is also the time when storeowners who have been ďon the bubbleĒ usually decide that itís time to quit business. This year, after everyone sits down to look at the 2008 balance sheets, I think weíre going to see a very high number of going-out-of-business sales.
So this is a good time to look at what we all lose when independent retailers throw in the towel.
Remember independent grocery stores? I do. When we first moved into the Washington Park neighborhood, there were two small grocery stores within walking distance of the house: Meachumís, in the building thatís now Bonnie Brae Wine and Liquor Mart, and Preisserís, in the building next door to Bonnie Brae Ice Cream on Ohio, which is now Bonnie Brae Repair.
They both closed within a few years after we moved in. My daughter, the older of my two children, has a vague recollection of Preisserís, the last one to go. My son, however, was just a toddler when they closed, and doesnít remember either of them.
Memories are precious Ė and fleeting. So Iím very grateful that my brother took a video camera to our childhood home and recorded our late fatherís memories. His parents, my grandparents, ran a grocery store, The Blue Front Market, at 20th and Curtis in the '30s and '40s.
"During the Depression," he told my brother and the camera, "people would come into the store every day and ask if we could spare a loaf of bread -- and we'd give one to them.
"But how many loaves of bread can you give away and still stay in business?" he asked, with a slight choke in his voice.
I recently told that story to Diana Nelson, the owner of Kazoo & Co. toy store, one of Denverís independent retail success stories.
I wasnít expecting her response.
ďThatís exactly how it is for all of us,Ē she said. ďIím trying to employ as many people as possible, because I know jobs are hard to find right now. But how many people can I employ and still stay in business?Ē
I reminded her that my daughter, now 26, had worked at her store one summer during high school, and we both smiled.
My daughter lives in the Washington DC metro area these days, and she works for Apple. She maintains a lively, intelligent and well-read blog, and thereís not a shred of doubt in my mind that the Internet always will be a big part of her life.
Her first jobs, however, in addition to Kazoo & Co., were at The Bookies, The Wizardís Chest and the Tattered Cover Ė independent local retailers all.
On her recent visit home, we took a walk to the Old South Gaylord Street shopping area because that was the part of Colorado she most wanted to show her boyfriend, Dan. We wound it up by having ice cream at Bonnie Brae Ice Cream, laughing as we told Dan about the time we snuck in when she was just recovering from the chicken pox.
For the moral of this rambling story, we must return to Diana Nelson, whose success, in large part, can be attributed to her savvy use of Internet marketing, which accounts for a good chunk of her toy sales.
Those sales help underwrite the salaries of her clerks. If she decided to close the store and sell all her merchandise through the Internet, sheíd undoubtedly pocket a lot more cash. But, as she made clear, thatís not why sheís in business. She continues to do business the old-fashioned way because retail isnít just about making money. Itís also about making -- and supporting -- a community.
I think that when the story of the current economic crisis is taught to my great-grandchildren in 2059, itís not going to be about Wall Stock greed or the collapse of the mortgage industry. Those are only the triggers.
I believe the real crisis is based on a much deeper issue. Society is in the process of shifting to an Internet-based economy, and we havenít shaken out all the buggy-whip manufacturers.
Itís true that the independent grocery stores are gone. So are the pharmacies. And the newspapers look to be next, followed by television as we know it. After all, why should sponsors pay for advertising when consumers Tivo past it or watch uninterrupted programs free on line? And the music and movie industries? Forget about them.
This transition is apt to be very painful for a very long time. I believe, however, that small, independent retailers will always be a part of our economy. Because the more impersonal and digitally based our society becomes, the more people like my daughter are going to seek out the comfort of real neighborhoods with real stores and real storekeepers.
Ever since the first town sprang up next to the first store, people have gathered in the marketplace, and I donít think the fundamental human needs for both goods and eye contact will ever change.
This generationís job is to follow lead of Diana Nelson. Weíve got to figure out how to hold on to our communities as we also learn how to shake the money out of a revolutionary new economy.