Locally-owned independent retailers contribute a vast amount to cities. Equally, it's almost impossible to see how national or multinational chains genuinely contribute much to cities at all.
That's not to say that national retailers don't have a place - the Mujis of this world clearly contribute a great deal, economically but also symbolically, as cultural goods. But they don't contribute to cities in the same way.
Exploring numerous cities worldwide leads to an almost instinctive understanding of this, but recent research from the US indicates that between 54 and 58 cents of every dollar spent at a locally-owned retailer stays in that local environment, as they tend to employ a local accountant, a local delivery service, local web designer, local graphic designer and signwriter, local architect, advertise in the local paper, and so on. A national store contributes only 15 cents to the local environment, for every dollar spent, as they tend to centralise those same functions in order to induce greater efficiency. (The research was cited by Stacy Mitchell, author of The Hometown Advantage, on the excellent Smart Cities radio show/podcast, in a show marking the 25th anniversary of Miami's Books & Books store.)
But it's not a simple economic value. They are also nodes in the tight networks of weak ties that form local communities. Further, the grain, vitality and appearance of the street is nourished and enlivened by the local independent retailer - whether a grocer, a kids' shop, a paper shop or my own area of fervent interest, the book store or record store.
When I arrived in Sydney from London, I managed to sniff out Published Art bookshop and TITLE Film + Music within the first week. I knew everything would be fine after that. Published Art is truly a world class design, architecture and art/photography bookshop, tucked into the city end of Surry Hills. Curating with some discernment, only single copies of books are stocked and thus don't remain on shelves for long. This means that titles can be displayed cover outwards, as intended, and the store always has (too many) books and magazines of interest every single visit.
TITLE is also a world class music and film store, located amidst the urban greenery of Crown Street, also in Surry Hills. The cinema is catered for through a near-perfect selection of DVDs, heavy on the Criterion Collection specials, quality boxsets, art-house movies from around the world, and with a peppering of curios and cult classics.
The music selection is equally wide-ranging, with what must be the densest concentration of ECM in the southern hemisphere alongside the best of the world's avant garde labels and non-mainstream music from reggae to classical, all threaded through more accessible product to hook the half-interested. A global view, combined with a strong representation of local antipodean product, sidesteps any lazy notion of 'world music'. It's just a great selection, curated by staff who know their onions and who also provide excellent service. Not everything works and not everything is to my personal taste, but that's the point. In curating, you take a stance, make an editorial decision. Again, it's clearly more than 'just a business'.
Not long after discovering it, I wrote a short piece on TITLE for Monocle's
regular record store column, but I thought readers here might be interested in
a longer, near un-edited cut of the interview I did with owner Steve Kulak.
To me, Kulak's work indicates the value of the local independent retailer to the
community, particularly when selling cultural products. It also shows the value
of cultural businesses - local and global at the same time, hooked into local
networks of producers and consumers as intermediaries, vibrant and challenging,
emanating from the specific cultural milieu of the city, and making money and
making streets at the same time.