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Agoraphobes

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Wednesday, May 31, 2017 09:39 am

I remember watching some talking heads trying to predict the future on a TV news show back when I was in high school. The trouble with trying to foresee trends, one of the participants warned, is that you have to keep track of everything, because a change in one area will affect changes in other areas. Advances in transportation, for example, will tend to stop or slow advances in communication. If we're in the middle of a communications boom, conversely, not much will be happening in transportation.

That piece of advice has always stayed with me, and I've been thinking about it as I watch the decline in retail and the resulting remaking of the urban landscape. (Watching from afar, I hasten to add, since I rarely "go out" shopping anymore. I am part of the problem, if, indeed, you see this change as a problem.)

Kevin Williamson, "roving correspondent for National Review, tells us just how drastic the retail decline has been:

At the highwater mark, there were about 5,000 malls in the United States, and there are now 1,100, at least 400 of which are expected to close in the next few years. In the 1980s, developers built an average of 60 malls a year — and more than 100 in some years. Now, cities from San Bernardino, Calif., to High Point, N.C., are dealing with the husks of these dead retail behemoths. There are documentary films and TED talks about dead malls.

And what the hell do you do with an empty mall? Try to lure other (usually less reliable) retailers? Find a different use for all that space? Leave standing a crumbling eyesore? Tear the damn thing down and put in a park?

One trend is the proliferation of "pop up" stores, those retail outlets that come and stay for just a few days or weeks:

 The upswing in pop-up stores, as the short-term placements are called, is playing out in all sorts of ways, and in all sorts of places — including dark malls, former grocery stores and shuttered art galleries, according to real estate brokers, landlords and tenants.

For retailers, the stores can offer lower rents and far less commitment. For the landlords, the reason is just as clear: A short-term tenant is better than no tenant at all.

“Landlords have their backs against the wall right now,” said Samantha Elias, the co-founder of the Vintage Twin, a secondhand clothing company whose stores frequently pop up in Manhattan. “I tell them that some money is better than no money, and I promise not to bother you.”

The rise in pop-up stores is adding another element of change to a retail industry facing upheaval from profound shifts in consumer habits and powerful new competitors, especially online. In the past, short-term tenants focused on holidays like Halloween: Costumes were hot items in October, but sales evaporated once the calendar turned to November.

But today, the products go far beyond monster masks, to skin serums, designer handbags and crystal champagne flutes, as brands see pop-ups as an opportunity for quick public exposure or as a possible steppingstone to something bigger. And while some landlords continue to shun short-term deals — arguing that the rents, which are generally below market rate, do not justify the trouble and cost involved with preparing a space — they are quickly dwindling in number.

I confess that pop ups are the kind of innovation that can lure me up from my couch and my Amazon order screen, if only for short-term excitement. The idea that I won't know what'll be there but that it might include a bargain is still an important element of shopping, at least for those of us inclined to impulse buying. One thing that kept me going to bookstores even after I had succumbed to the charms of the Kindle was the ability to wander aimlessly up and down the aisles until something caught my eye. More often than not, it was a cookbook in the bargain bin, which is why I ended up with scores of the stupid things, even though I usually go to Google when I need a recipe. Why spend two hours thumbing through cookbooks for one bean soup recipe when a click of the mouse can deliver thousands to you in under a minute?

Filling or otherwise disposing of all these empty malls does not seem to me to be the catastrophe others are lamenting. I went to high school near downtown Fort Wayne when that was still the most vital area in the city, and I can tell you the emptying out of the central city district was a very traumatic experience. And it remains so to this day, which is why cities across the country are so intent on rebuilding and re-energizing their downtowns. Rightly or wrongly, downtown is seen not just as a geographic center but also a spiritual one, the heart and soul of the metropolitan landscape. When one is so clearly languishing, it casts a pall over the whole urban experience.

Nobody is shedding such significant tears over the emptying out of a building or two on what still amounts to the outskirts of town. Malls came into being as a substitute for dying downtowns (and in many cases they were the murderers of downtown)s, and in many ways they filled the bill nicely. The ultimate in shopping, climate controlled, ample parking, convenient places to eat or rest. But they were never the gathering places for the masses that downtowns were, the place where everybody had to be, sooner or later.

But the problem goes deeper than the spaces themselves. When downtowns emptied out because better transportation and more roads made it possible, the jobs that go with retail shopping merely moved from one place to another. But with malls and big box stores emptying out because of the rise of online shopping (which reached to significant milestone of more than half of all shopping just last year), those jobs aren't moving — they're disappearing. And that is a very big deal. Williamson again:

And shops and jobs go together: One in ten employed Americans works in retail. Retail salesman is the single most common job in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And while much has been made of the decline in old-line industrial jobs that carry a certain nostalgic charge, there are 17 times as many retail jobs as jobs in automobile manufacturing, 100 times as many retail jobs as steel jobs, and 210 times as many Americans working in retail as in coal mining — not just miners, but all coal-mining jobs, from CEO on down. Shop jobs mostly are not especially high-paying (though they sometimes are), and they tend to be held by workers who for various reasons — sometimes lack of skill and education, but also things such as the need for flexible scheduling or physical limitations — often do not have a great many desirable options. People sometimes scoff: “Yeah, creative destruction is great — we'll just tell all those unemployed steelworkers to become software designers!” But the fact is that steel mills and mines and factories employ a great many highly educated and highly skilled people, from engineers to machinists, and they are a lot more likely to be able to find good new jobs than is the 48-year-old mother of three who works four days a week at the local Sears. That job may not provide enough to support a family of five, but it may very well pay enough to take care of the mortgage and the electricity bill — for two-income families, those modestly paid retail jobs aren't about pin money.

For many of us, working in retail sales was the first job we had. (My first job in high school was as an usher for the Jefferson Theater: will you allow me to don my uniform and come into your home while you're watching a movie on your giant flat-screen and tell you to put out that cigarette and knock off the necking? My second job was as a hamburger flipper and French fry grease monkey at McDonald's; the robots will be taking away those jobs any day.) The point of those jobs wasn't the money — or at least just the money — but entry. The first job led us to the second one, which put us on the track to steady, lifetime employment. In those first jobs, we learned all about what work was, what we could expect and what was expected of us? What will substitute for that experience?

I have no idea where all of this is headed, which was the point I made at the beginning of this post. In retrospect, the emptying of downtowns and the rise of malls should have been predictable. And this far into he collapse of the brick-and-mortar retail in general, that, too, is understandable. But the digital/mobile revolution is still developing, and I suspect that very soon there will be no particular reason for us to leave our homes for any reason. Not even to just gather with loved ones. When video communication transitions into holographic communications (and trust me, that is just around the corner), I suspect we might all be hold up in our individual enclaves, with nothing between us but abandoned warehouses, crumbing roads and gangs of Mad Max motorcyclists roaming the post-retail apocalyptic landscape.

Of course, a revolutionary transportation innovation could show up tomorrow and blow everything I've just said all to hell. Scotty, beam me over to the nearest Starbucks, please!

Failing that, however, we're going to need new reasons to gather in public spaces. The agora was the most important place in all of ancient Greece. It was where commerce happened, where generals planned, where philosophers questioned, where laws were hashed over. It is fair to ask how civilization as we know it would have developed without it. It is fair to ask how much further we can advance without its equivalent. The longer we stay in, the longer we will want to. The more reasons we find to not go out, the more we will look for. Into that vacuum will step . . . well, who knows what?

See ya around.

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