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.
TITLE Music and Film, Surry Hills
"I discussed it with a few people - other retailers, other businesspeople. First, they said, you're going into a retail area that's in decline, supposedly. Not a good idea. Secondly, you're only selling things that you like? Well, it's suicide. Forget it. Don't do it."
Steve Kulak smiles. "If you have an impulse for something, and you get 20 people telling you not to do it, it makes you more stubborn. There is no logical or economic argument associated with it - you just do it."
TITLE Film + Music, in Sydney's inner-city suburb of Surry Hills, continues to defy Kulak's erstwhile business advisors. It's a profitable music retail business, growing month on month, and about to branch out to a new "iconic store" in Melbourne's Fitzroy, with further stores planned in Balmain and Brisbane. (Ed.: the Melbourne store is now open.)
Driven by an imperative to showcase "the best music, films and books that this little planet has produced", TITLE files Classical next to Reggae next to art-house DVDs - all curated by Kulak and his team - with the store designed to encourage punters to take a chance on something new.
And Crown Street is the perfect location. It's gone from a strip of DIY stores to organic grocers and boutique nurseries in 2 years, as Surry Hills manages to retain its leafy streets and healthy mix of low-income and well-off. The clientele ranges from mums with prams, students who might take occasional advantage of the money back guarantee that Kulak offers, to the superstars of the area's many film production companies. John Maynard, Bruce Beresford, Peter Weir and Geoffrey Rush have all shopped there.
Kulak grins. "Baz Luhrmann was in here. It was great. Spent 3000 bucks in one day!"
Kulak's is a particular kind of Australian story. He roamed the world backpacking for 10 years as an aspiring writer - "definitely not a hippy" he quickly points out. Inspired by Hemingway, and "really trying hard to look for trouble and adventure", he picked up cerebral malaria and a bullet-hole in Africa, was deported out of Moscow, was bundled out of the Golden Temple massacre in Amritsar as the Indian army attacked. He survived with his stories and returned home to instead end up running one of the region's best music distribution businesses, Fuse Music. Responsible for importing respected German label ECM to Australia, alongside many other, mainly European, non-mainstream labels and film catalogues, this in turn led directly to TITLE.
Kulak got frustrated of simply distributing to the likes of Borders and JB Hi-Fi. Borders stock their products, but if items don't sell within 60 days, they'd return them, marked in their databases as 'never re-order.' Kulak bristles at this myopic approach to music, calling it a form of "cultural censorship" when they still have space for 40 copies of Britney's latest.
He thinks these shops should be there to "nurture something else - that's not economics. There's no time limit on cultural sell-through". He points out, "Keith Jarrett's Köln Concert, it's 1975, but the date's not important - how good is it?" It's the shop's best-selling CD.
"People walk past the shop window, and they stop and then move, and then they stop again. They see an erotic book cover, and a Woody Guthrie thing, but then they see Bob Dylan, and then they see 'El Topo' and they say 'Wait a minute'. The curiosity gets them in. Most people come in and don't understand anything that's there, but they're willing to take a risk, a gamble - because there's this edifice, this building, that represents a physical belief in taking that risk. They make a purchase ... on hope."
"So it's a store for optimists?" I ask.
Kulak has a driven belief in music and films as something more than a product. "These are things that furnish a room, yes, but also elevate you, advance you, ask you questions".
He notes how people move into a new home, "a non space - an empty space - then try to fill it by urgently putting a television on. Only at the end, when you've been watching 2-3 hours, do you realise 'I've not actually advanced. I haven't moved forward, I don't actually think anything'. But you watch a wonderful film and it just takes you somewhere. It's something that moves you - you feel you've advanced your understanding and perception in some way. I hope people, through a shop like this, get that, in a way that shops like Borders and JB Hifi won't, because you're surrounded by these other energy-sapping things like plasma screens and noise and all of that ..."
"We just wanted a personal space - not making any big statement or great ambition other than to nurture ourselves. Every one of the 14 people that work here are the sort of people you'd bump into in the '80s or '90s haunting these wonderfully obscure vinyl shops or bookshops or whatever."
"You need loyalty, you need people around for the long term - so what better way that than create a work space that's like a home space, that's an intellectual space, that's an emotional space."
"And what's happened is that writers, with manuscripts, are coming into the store because they'd heard we're moving into publishing. Musicians come in because they hear we're setting up a label. The shop's become a beacon of some description ... presuming just by looking at that window. It's connecting them to a reality that they only wish was the dominant reality, rather than what they see elsewhere."
But Kulak's allied this progressive vision to an Aussie 'can do' attitude, and that's resulted in firm foundations for TITLE.
Starting up a publishing arm, he's continued with the distribution business, as well as creating the retail outlets and expanding into internet sales on top. Of the latter, he asks how many internet-only music sites have beautiful 'bricks and mortar' shops associated? Of the other specialist record shops, how many actually have warehouse space? With this, TITLE can get records to people the following day, which Kulak notes is an "old-fashioned concept" but a delight when apparent progress elsewhere in the rabidly dis-intermediated music retail sector can often mean a delivery estimate of 4-6 weeks.
"The easiest thing, in a sense, is to create a CD or write a book. The hardest thing is distribution, nationally, to every store. To get the media to pay attention to it, to have a great relationship with critics who'll then review it. We've developed those relationships, as a distribution company. How obvious would it be for that distribution company that has set up its logistics as it has, to then become content providers? So we would then create publishing arms in music recording, book publishing, magazines, whatever ... because we've got the warehouse facilities, and the media connections to make that work. As a business model we own everything from the idea - the book or the CD - to the means of distribution to the outlet. And then with the internet coming in on top of that as well. How many internet only retail stores have the bricks and mortar to back it - and the distribution. "
The "bread and butter" on the distribution side still comes from selling to Borders. But the double margin of running a retail space as well obviously appeals to Kulak. His eyes shine as he describes the powerful, vertically integrated business model. "Top to bottom. Total control. So we choose what we want to initially record, or import, right through the chain. To the very end. We're selective."
"By having these obscure things that everybody told us wasn't going to work, we've proved there was a public there who devoured it. And it's not an economic equation. The economic rationality doesn't come into it. True optimism, true culture, doesn't have that money value that it's suddenly acquired in recent times."
Reinforcing this sense of curated culture, the store itself is beautifully designed, by the late Mike Murphy, with bespoke racks for CD and vinyl, carefully crafted in timber and metal. Designed to stop passers-by in their tracks, as well as cater for hardened crate diggers, the space won TITLE the Design Institute of Australia's Retail Interior Design Award for 2007.
It wasn't, however, designed with books in mind, and Kulak sees the value in all three coming together. "We need books, we need film, we need music. They're the three. It's all the same journey."
So the new Ryan Russell-designed Melbourne TITLE store on Gertrude Street will be bigger double-storey building, with the top floor dedicated to books. Kulack says, "We won't have the new Salman Rushdie novel. You can go to Borders; go and get that anywhere. You will have an obscure text by William Burroughs. We'll leave space for different opinions to surface."
He continues, "You've got to touch it, feel it, look at it. A generation here talked about real estate values - what a hollow way to live. We wanted substance. Originally the store was going to be called 'Touch'. The UK label gave their blessing, but the designer refused to go anywhere near it as It's an existing international brand."
"It's still a business. Money follows a good idea."
Plans for Brisbane and Balmain (Sydney) stores are in the pipeline, but not before they're ready.
"We need organic growth. We needed to open this (Sydney) store, prove that it's successful. It's not outrageously successful, but it's profitable and that's good enough. Melbourne will be very profitable, there's no question about that. But each step of the way it's an organic growth. Everything has to prove itself. I don't have a philanthropist backing me of something, which is better too. But it means that a business takes a lot longer to establish."
So TITLE is a store for optimists, and makes money too. As Kulak suggests, it turns out that "bohemian and business can go together. It's a no-brainer. The richness of these cultural artifacts is so obvious and self-evident, they present themselves, in a way. It's got a momentum of its own. I just wish my bank manager had the same sense of momentum."
TITLE Music and Film
499 Crown Street, Surry Hills, Sydney
83 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, Melbourne