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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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New urbanism can rescue specialty stores

Joel Ferris Jr. Special to The Spokesman-Review

D oesn’t it drive you nuts when a local retailer announces he is going out of business and says, “I just decided it was time to retire. It has been a great run and now I am going to catch up on a little reading, play some golf and do that traveling that I put off so long.”

Don’t believe it. Retailers don’t believe in retirement. They all think they will drop with their boots on.

Take our situation at Joel Inc., a 55-year-old business in downtown Spokane. My family has lived retail since I was in diapers. With the exception of my sister, who escaped to become a teacher, my siblings and I were all bit by the retail bug. What did we do at the dinner table? We talked about the latest new product line, or the difficult customer du jour, or maybe an upcoming market. We drove ourselves crazy with this retail obsession, but we did it anyway. It defined us.

Now, after all these years my brother and I really are going to close the business this summer. OK, you ask, what is the real story? Well, I have nothing to lose, so here goes.

First of all, if you are planning on setting up a little retail business because you “like to buy things” and it “sounds like so much fun,” think again. This is a tough way to make a living. Bankers want you to manage your cash flow and make a profit, and they could care less about your excuses.

When my father started out in 1950, the idea of “going to a market” was like going to Zanzibar, some exotic sounding port of call where only a chosen few had been. When you brought all these neat goodies home, you could be pretty sure you were the only store in town that had them. You were a “specialty store.” People had to come to you for this neat stuff. If you were authoritative and had great customer service, then you developed a great reputation and customer loyalty.

In the 1950s small stores were abundant in downtowns across America, Spokane included. My father started his shop in a small building in the 700 block of West Sprague where the Spokane Transit Center now stands.

All around his store were small businesses like the Blue Bird Shop, Les Critzer’s Shoes, a barber shop, a florist, a second-floor health club called the Executive Club, as well as some medium-sized stores like John W. Graham’s across the street. Yes, the huge Crescent department store was a block away on Riverside, but it wasn’t considered a threat to the small guys. The Crescent set a high retail bar but didn’t try to crush your store. The Crescent didn’t steal your customers; it merely brought people downtown and allowed them to “shop around” so that you didn’t have to spend all your money on advertising.

In the ‘50s everybody, big and small, got a crack at the same customers, who parked their cars and walked from store to store, rain or shine. Sidewalks were full, people laughed, talked, joked and traded family stories at curbside. Restaurants were abundant and independent movie houses were part of the mix.

What has changed? Hey, it wasn’t always easy being a small retailer in 1955, but nowadays it is beyond tough if you are a small retailer and not safely ensconced in the mall.

We have a lot more competition for the shopper dollar. National mail-order catalogs, for example. It used to be you got the occasional Crescent catalog or maybe Nieman Marcus. Now we all get catalogs for every item imaginable. We just fill out the form, stick in a check and send it in. If that weren’t simple enough, there is the Internet. Click, click, click and you are done. You didn’t even have to waste 37 cents for a stamp.

OK, so you actually like the shopping experience. Where do you go if you go downtown? How about a climate-controlled mall with a big picture window that looks out on the rest of downtown. It’s got glitzy national formula stores, restaurants and plush movie theaters. A great place to entertain the kids for two and a half hours. When you are worn out, you get your parking ticket validated and exit the attached parking garage. The rest of the retailers downtown don’t even hit your rear-view mirror.

If you are a small retailer, what about those cool exclusive products that you bought in Zanzibar? Guess what, the big guys go to market now, too. Not only do “fancy stores” like William-Sonoma have the stuff you once had exclusively, so do the big box retailers like Bed Bath and Beyond and even Fred Meyer.

The retail challenges in downtown Spokane over the last four years start with the worldwide recession that began in April 2001 (it has been tougher for the man on the street than most economists admit). Then there was 9/11 (we all felt scared and guilty even to think about shopping) and street closures (to help facilitate the building of the Davenport and the Post Street Enhancement Project). Retailers will tell you that access to a business is critical, particularly in the fourth quarter.

If the global recession weren’t challenging enough, Oregon and Washington have had the highest unemployment rates in the nation during much of this period. Add to that the Spokane factor. Many of the children of our best and brightest have been forced to relocate to find a livelihood. The opportunities just weren’t here.

So what does an independent downtown retailer do if it isn’t inside the mall? More importantly, what do we do as citizens to promote a healthier downtown? We have to encourage a new urbanist approach (new that combines the best of the ‘50s with the best of 2005. We need to encourage urban living downtown: lofts, condos, live/work spaces that get people using downtown 24/7 and help promote safety and vitality. If a lot of people live in or near downtown, it encourages walking on the sidewalk and sidewalk cafes. It encourages specialty stores and restaurants, micro-grocery stores and bistros.

People want convenient services near where they live. When small independent businesses cluster and there is enough walk-by traffic, they can afford to be in business. They are turning their merchandise over.

Density is the key. Add interesting amenities like finger parks as well as sculpture alleys with vendor carts selling food and drink.

You can find a national formula store in any medium to big city in America. They don’t make the downtowns great. Unique, one-of-a-kind businesses make downtowns great. They are must-see attractions for visitors.

We have a great shell in downtown Spokane. We have some visionary leaders. We just need to fill in the missing pieces. Our store may be leaving the retail scene, but I have to believe there are other young entrepreneurs who, like a 31-year-old Joel Ferris II in 1950, are willing to take the risk and say, “I don’t just want a job. I want to do something special in my home town.”

Well, that is all there is. On behalf of my family, good luck, Spokane, and thanks for so many wonderful memories.

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