Sometimes it is good to step out of a comfort zone.
I live in a town with a traditional type high street. Many people including the mayor, who I believe to be a good guy overall, is very proud of the towns high street. It looks nice, as long as everything is looked at from a distance of a couple of dozen feet or more and the paint jobs on the store fronts that are a couple of years past their best and the 50% off tickets that seem to have swarmed don’t come into sharp focus. At first glance everything looks fine, as long as you don’t look too closely that is.
I came to America from the UK, from an old town with a real high street. The type of high street where, on a Saturday morning it was so crowded, I think the correct word is actually bustling, that you had to zig zag on and off the sidewalk to make progress. Where, after about 9.30AM it was all but impossible to get a seat at any of the four thriving coffee shops. Of course big box shopping was limited to food and Amazon and Google had yet to rise to world dominance. I haven’t been back for a long time now but apparently the town center is still a hive of activity as people don’t just go into town on guerila shopping raids, they go into town to meet people, to be around others, to connect with a world where it is OK just to kill a couple of hours, to go out of the front door without exact expectations.
In that English town I would see more people go in and out of the smallest, most specialized store in an hour than would be around our entire midwestern downtown area on its busiest day.
I have no deep analysis of the issue to offer but but I have made some observations in my short time here, mainly by looking and to some extent by talking to some of the shop owners and hearing of their plights. There are two types of shopkeeper in this town:
Those who do what they do through a love of the thing they are selling combined with a love of people and business. These are nature’s shopkeepers, often inheriting their affinity for the lifestyle from previous generations. These people often have investment in some of the bricks and mortar that make up our town center. They also have strong business networks often going back decades if not generations. These people generally, but by no means always, survive the downturns. I suspect that the numbers surviving each downturn become fewer and fewer.
Then there is another much more vulnerable group, the reluctant storekeepers. These are the people who basically have no option. Real unemployment in the area is close to 20% and that doesn’t factor in underemployment. The official figure may only be 10% but we do have some people working in positions who really know these things and they say 20%. I believe them – it certainly feels like 20%. This means that the only way people have of staying in the area is to get the finance together to open up shop. Of course this is no longer an option because we are deep enough into the recession where credit scores go bad and banks stop lending money.
These reluctant storekeepers deep down may have always known that they were taking a gamble and that really they were just trying to mortgage a little bit of their future to buy a little time in the present or they may have thought that they could change the world, chase the dream and all that.
They would have rented their premises, probably for an amount of money that was not reasonable given the towns economy and been up against it from the start. Of course they were desperate, not just to generate an income but for a deeper purpose, something to give life meaning beyond family and friends. Now it is easy to paint the landlords who were insisting on the rent but that is a little too easy for often these landlords were prepared to work with their struggling tenants and come up with alternative, often ad hoc payment plans. The reasons for this were often mixed, it is not easy to get good tenants in a recession and the more altruistic empathy for fellow business people. Ultimately there is only so much that the property owners can do though as they have the banks breathing down their necks. Yup the banks. Not much altruism to be found their.
When I shot these images I had no idea that they would form part of an essay. I shot them because I was crawling up the walls and needed to get out of the house for half an hour. The day was a foul one with what is termed a wintry mix coming down for most of the day. This half an hour was the only wintry mix free time in the entire day. After I got home I decided that it would be interesting to try and get a shot of every store on the high street but all processed in the same way. It really was intended as a folly with no purpose outside of itself – just something to do on a wintry mix day.
Originally I was just going to write a few words to go with the images and post them as the images themselves are different enough to be of interest, at least in my often not so humble opinion. It was only after starting that the pictorial coalesced with this feeling that I’ve had about our high street but have never really organized into words before.
The title for this piece seemed to choose itself.
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