Amazon has reached the far corners of the earth… and the highest elevations. Delivery men venture 11,562 feet up in the Himalayas to leave a package. While the company may serve a useful purpose in remote regions, its phenomenal growth also reveals that no town is immune from its less desirable consequences. The online retailer’s omnipresence has been all too apparent in Chicago, New York, and London in recent months, where stores have been closing in droves.
Treasure Island Foods of Chicago, a family-owned business started by Christ Kamberos in 1963, announced at the end of September that after 55 years it was closing all remaining stores in just two weeks. Now, the lights are out and the shadows empty shelves are all that remain, with the scent of fresh sourdough and gyros cooking on the spit only in shoppers’ reminiscences as they walk by the darkened windows.
Julia Child once described Treasure Island as “America’s Most European Supermarket.” In my memory, it was unforgettable. The stores always had treasure troves for every season, from delicious green picholine olives from France, to liver pâté and English Blue Stilton at Christmas, and of course, Marmite. Not to mention exotic cookies and chocolates from all over the world: marzipan and chocolate from Switzerland and Austria, shortbread from Scotland, and crisp butter wafers from the Netherlands are a few examples. It was a haven for special gifts during the holidays.
Treasure Island was not alone in the struggle to survive amidst food delivery apps and Amazon. Not only were customers buying goods online, but Amazon was also shifting into the grocery market by taking over Whole Foods. Not surprisingly, Chicago’s other local grocery chain Dominick’s closed in 2014. The city lost one of its most beloved bakeries too in 2017 when the Swedish Bakery closed after 88 years in business. Gone were the days of mouth-watering rum balls, Princess Torte laden with green marzipan, and toska cake. In its final days an estimated 500 customers per day flocked in to have one last tasty treat.
Purchasing items online might be convenient but the trend has serious costs for many industries, not only food. Retail has been hit hard. Sears recently filed for bankruptcy and is closing 142 stores. So did Toys R Us, shuttering its outlets last summer. Luxury goods retailer Henri Bendel announced in September that its stores will be closing too, after 123 years.
What’s more the change is not just in the United States. In the UK, Marks & Spencer plans to close 100 stores by 2022. Debenhams and House of Fraser in London are also in trouble. In March of 2018, Sweden’s H & M reported the lowest first quarter profits in more than a decade, down 62%. When large international stores are being squeezed, one can understand how local shops are struggling to keep afloat. A recent Atlantic article observes that Manhattan is becoming a “rich ghost town.” So many store fronts once filled with interesting items are now empty, a trend that the author predicts will move to other cities. Will the choices for future shoppers be restricted to chain stores and dark unrented windows? Local small retailers unable to afford high rents are gradually being nudged out of existence. They need help.
Could Local Currencies Save Our Neighborhood Stores?
Switzerland has had the WIR since 1934 and Ithaca, New York introduced its own currency known as Ithaca Hours in 1991. Ithaca Hours started out with 90 individuals who were willing to accept the currency as a payment for their work, and expanded to become one of the largest local currency systems in the U.S. Ithaca’s example was an inspiration for municipal systems in Madison, Wisconsin, and Corvallis, Oregon.
The UK also has several local currencies including the Bristol Pound. The former Mayor of Bristol accepted his entire salary in Bristol Pounds, and more than 800 businesses accept the local currency.
Once local currencies are in circulation, consumers can continue using their national currency to purchase from large retailers and from online giants like Amazon. Their local currency, though, is typically used at local businesses.
As an example, were a Chicago currency implemented, consumers might use their U.S. dollars to purchase goods online but would use their Chicago currency to buy locally. Legislators and communities could thus lend a helping hand to local gems that remain in our towns. Lutz Cafe and Pastry Shop, for instance, established in 1948, is unique to Chicago, and creates some of the most delicious cakes in the world.
By 2003, there were over 1,000 local currencies in North America and Europe. Yet this is a mere fraction of the total number of cities. If local currencies expanded to a majority of towns, perhaps our beloved neighborhood stores would be able to survive the online onslaught.
The Benefits of Preserving Local Shops
Consumers lose a service every time a small shop shuts down. A local paint store, for instance, can provide advice on what paint to use for a particular purpose, how to use it, etc. Nowadays, in many towns, these stores have closed. Consumers’ options are limited to buying online without input from an expert, or from a large national chain, where they will be lucky to find advice comparable to that from a specialized store. The same holds true for many kinds of home repair.
Then there is the charm of familiar faces at the corner store. Growing up near Treasure Island as a child, I could scarcely forget the cherry-cheeked cherub-like server at the deli counter. After noticing this eight-year-old’s tendency to gorge on free olive samples once a week, he would always laugh heartily with those chubby cheeks and remark with a chuckle that I would end up eating all the olives before reaching the check out line. Ordering specialty olives online is just not the same. There may be no checkout line, but also no one to talk or joke with. The same is true for the automated Amazon Go stores. The nice deli server today is out of a job after decades of service.
Another hidden cost of online purchases is environmental. Aside from fossil fuel emissions, delivery of a parcel requires packaging, and often bubble wrap, made of low-density polyethylene, a form of plastic that comprises 20% of global plastic pollution. Reusable bags and a neighborhood store within walking distance are clearly better for the environment.
Amazon’s reach extends to places like Leh, India, high in the snow-covered Himalayas, where many of its goods may not be available in town. And one can appreciate and understand the value of online purchases in such rural communities. In fact that was exactly the original purpose of Sears with its iconic catalogue.
Yet in cities where one can readily buy the same items in stores nearby, we have to try to refrain from the convenience of one-click shopping. The more we purchase online items, the more we pollute the environment and kill local stores. Without small businesses, cities will eventually become homogenized with block after block of chain retailers, or dark empty windows, as has started to happen in Manhattan. The character of a quaint town or a trendy metropolis becomes obsolete.
Gone will be the unique gift shops and the luxury tailor. When the British high street becomes indistinguishable from U.S. ghost towns and when the only place to eat is a chain burger joint, the fun of traveling and the adventure of new places will be lost forever. The vibrant world of new flavors and experiences will be no more.
So please think twice before clicking an online purchase. You may be signing your local store’s death warrant.
Author’s note: this piece first appeared in CounterPunch.org