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End of the Little Shop
Posted February 23rd, 2013 in Blog by Rick Hill

Alice'sContemporary film often reflects the sentiments of its audience and initiates varied emotions that are generated well beyond the subject matter of the movie itself. In this regard, the music, location, and lighting of the film can serve as a window into a deeper set of emotions and yearnings. This is for the simple reason that images and sounds link our consciousness with the unconscious to bring back memories of the past to reinforce the thoughts and feelings of the present.
 
In the movie You’ve Got Mail, Meg Ryan plays the role of Kathleen Kelly, an owner of a children’s bookstore in New York. It is a quaint intimate and well stocked independent and profitable shop that is a clear extension of her own sensibilities, perhaps allowing Ms. Kelly a needed connection to a lost childhood. But, life was good for Ms. Kelly’s and her devoted patrons until Foxbooks, mega-big-box-store, announced plans to move next door, seemingly to quickly serve the role of category killer.
 
Hugh Grant, in the 1999 film Notting Hill, played the role of William Thacker who also owned and operated another independent book store in a vibrant London neighborhood, known for its antique shops, small cafes and one of a kind specialty stores. Perhaps the shop was a frivolous commercial experiment with a recent inheritance or a deliberate move to a more pragmatic phase of life after a recent divorce, but it served a vital role in the neighborhood as a place of socialization and community connection. In real life, Notting Hill is an area in West London, close to the north-western corner of Hyde Park. It is a multinational district, once considered as a slum, now known as a creative community and home of the annual Notting Hill Carnival and the Portobello Road Market.
 
In the 1988 film Big, Tom Hanks danced on the larger than life piano on the floor of FAO Schwarz, the memorable toy store that first opened in New York in 1870 to usher in an era of majestic retail.
 
In its first hundred years FAO Schwarz never had a sale. The Schwarz tradition was built on exclusive toys. The store offered exclusive embellishments to its toys such as deluxe boxes with velvet lining, extra designer outfits for dolls and handmade stuffed animals. An in-house team of craftsmen turned out specially built toys that included such innovations as “a city-mouse house” and a “country-mouse house.”
 
Celebrating its 100th birthday, Schwarz put on sale $50,000 worth of antique toys, including a 75-year-old Jonah and the Whale bank and a 100-piece German miniature kitchen set. Time Magazine reported on the hundredth anniversary of FAO Schwarz that its customer list had included Thomas Edison who had strolled in to shop for a doll and lingered in fascination over a Schwarz jack-in-the-box. Caroline Kennedy’s toy list for her first Christmas at the White House was filled at Schwarz.
 
However, over the years the specialty toy shop business was almost been totally replaced by mass produced generic toys largely distributed by big box discounters such as Target and Wal-Mart. The end of the specialty toy shop era may have arrived on Thursday, May 28, 2009, when Toys R Us, the last of the big box toy stores purchased the last two remaining FAO Schwarz stores.
 
Likewise, the entire era of the one of a kind shop, the type that enriched our lives with an out of the ordinary physical presence calling out to be explored and pleased that you just stopped in without the intent to purchase may be lost and restricted to coffee table books, the romantic film and memory of an aging generation. Unfortunately, today commercial success is primarily defined by only by sales volume profits. Intimate places of meaning are largely limited to distributed digital experiences.
 
But why it is that we only have a heart for the little shop as a prop in the theater? Isn’t it ironic that we only experience our romantic and childhood discoveries in film and not the real place? Why does the average consumer always turn to the high velocity warehouses that function as efficient distributors of goods at the lowest price, and turn their backs on these special emporiums, especially on special occasions? Hardly would one write their own romance script where a new love is found in the vastness of a warehouse store, yet we often purchase gifts of special meaning at these very places, often being careful to hide all signs of the place of purchase from the receiver.
 
But, in real life, the charming Travel Bookshop, located just off the Portobello Road in Notting Hill is a living institution among a variety of retro and avant-garde boutiques. Conceived and opened by Sarah Anderson in 1980, a devoted traveler with the passion to share the inspirations from her travels with her patrons considered as friends, The Bookshop inspires both those seeking new places of real adventure and those who limit their travels to only what they see, read and imagine in a book. In this vain, in the Notting Hill film, Hollywood actress Anna Scott played by Julia Roberts during her trip to London, enters Thacker’s shop looking for a specific book, only to begin a romantic journey.
 
Similarly, upon entering almost any independent specialty store, especially those who can survive in today’s lowest price environment, one immediately senses a place with a clear identity. These are the types of places where shop owners express their own sensibilities and patrons take a personal responsibility in the success of the store to insure the health of the overall community.
 
But sadly, the small specialty shop is becoming a symbol of a lost past resulting in a blurred vision of the future of community. Be it the bookstore, record store, or toy shop, each has served as portals into a world of fantasy, escape and cultural exchange. Likewise, all of these special little jewels along with a host of other intimate stores including the coffee shop with its community lunch counter and the remote general store all have primarily contributed to the enrichment of their communities. However, these once vibrant shops are now rapidly being replaced by a host of new distribution channels that have no place for context and meaning – just product and price.
 
The small independent shop produced an intimacy of space rare in contemporary retail stores and they have most importantly provided a vital component of the social and physical fabric of a community. Yet, this is not an argument about whether scent and candle stores should owned by independents or national chain made to look like a nostalgic version of a main street original. This is about entrepreneurial shops that build community, that think of their patrons as the neighbors they are and reinvest the profits from their community back into the community rather than shipping the profits back to Wall Street.
 
As we move into a period of declining economies, an aging population, and over taxed sources of revenue it does not take much to envision cities lacking any type of a profound resonance as the special shops of our past fade away. The issue goes much deeper as it is one that goes to the essence of a community which is about humans being connected to in real time face to face as they go about their day and not part of a fragmented and disconnected community of common interests connected only through the web. While a younger generation more and more becomes connected in a highly digital world one must wonder if we understand the real impact on the loss of public places in the community and being human. Without real face to face relationships and communication limited only to the realm of digital space we may actually be moving backwards on the evolutionary chain to nothing more than a new version of 21st century smoke signals.
 
No on-line community will ever replace the community discourse around a fireplace in a Vermont General store. The newest Xbox video adventure will never duplicate the thrill of a return to a once cherished toy shop. Holding ones breath in anticipation of a return to a place that has remained as always imagined, bringing back all of the memories of the past is something not to be lost. Loved places, those held close to the heart, are vital to the essence of ones being and without them it is hard to imagine a better world in the future.

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