There was a time when every single storefront in America was owned and operated by a cottage industry that hung its shingle to do business and offered a specialty service. Most shopkeepers were artisans – makers, not suppliers. They specialized in a trade. Often making their products by hand, they took great pride and care in their craft. They added value to materials with their skills, and in that way they actually “made” money. The retail shop was also more than a showroom, it was the street frontage of a rear workroom, and it was a part of the community. Shopkeepers lived in the neighborhood and some sat on the local school board. They were invested in the place.
The industrial revolution changed the face of Main Street. With the assembly line, the rise of the chain store and an emergent global economy, over a period of about fifty years, a majority of local shopkeepers were put out of business. Unable to compete with the prices big brands could offer consumers, across America, they closed their doors and traded their status of owner to employee. Most storefronts became essentially supplier venues for global retail brands. A powerful shift occurred that could best be described as a depersonalization of the shopping experience. As the malls went up, Main Street fell to the wayside. Customers’ payments went off to New York, Texas, Arkansas, or even China; they didn’t stay in the local bank to be used by other neighbors to help build the community.
Today there is a resurgent shopkeeper model taking hold of communities. If you walk the streets of most towns and cities you will find boutique designers and cottage industries, setting up shop in towns and cities in thriving areas across the country filling in the vacancies. Chocolatiers, leather workers, furniture makers, print makers, vegan bakeries, green friendly clothing designers, and other specialty goods you can’t easily get from the multi-nationals are among the emerging cottage industries popping up. When you buy something unique and personalized that cannot be purchased anywhere else, there is added value. You buy into an experience and invest in the health and future of your local economy.
The shopkeeper is a part of the local community, not just in the practical sense as a revenue contributing, job creating, tax paying entity, but also as a cultural and social force. They serve the unique tastes and desires of the community. They provide a physical space to discover new products. Many such shops are also occupied and run by the makers of the product being sold. They are personable and take pride in their work in a way that an hourly employee of a large company usually does not. They cater to and co-create the local flavor instead of dictating a style to every community. These are some of the intangible benefits that result from a Main Street occupied by local independent stores. They shape the spirit and identity of a place. Independents create a place that supports the larger community.