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Is Your Favorite Shop a Commons?

Bookstores, record stores, coffee shops and other independent businesses offer more than stuff to buy–they are an essential part of our communities.

by Jay Walljasper - April 28, 2008

National Record Store Day was April 18. In case you missed it, there’s still time to celebrate these distinctive businesses whose mission is often to bring music lovers together as much as to sell CDs.

But it you don’t celebrate your funky independent local record store soon—a place where you’re likely to rub shoulders with local music legends and learn from legendarily well-informed sales clerks—it may be too late. According to the New York Times , 3100 record stores around the U.S. have closed in the last five years. And these weren’t all chain stores at the mall; at least half were independent, iconoclastic shops like the one portrayed in the movie High Fidelity.

Many more record stores today face extinction at the hands of big box stores like Wal-Mart and Best Buy, which sell CDs at loss leader prices, as well as by the widespread downloading of music. But the Times reports that some are finding new ways to stay afloat, such as branching out into used CDs, vinyl and hosting live performances. It could be that the record shop of tomorrow might resemble a coffeehouse as much as retail store, serving espresso and jam sessions along with a curators’ selection of carefully chosen CDs.

Downloading music from companies like iTunes with its seemingly infinite selection of songs has been triumphantly heralded alongside Amazon.com, netflix, e-bay and other internet-based firms as “the long tail.” Because these firms aren’t constrained by stocking the shelves of a real store, they can offer far more choices in music, books, DVDs, curios and anything else.

I certainly have taken advantage of the long tail to get my hands on rare books I’ve long coveted thanks to abebooks.com—an online network of used book dealers, which I prefer to Amazon because they offer many more titles (including new ones) and put you in touch with a real bookseller who most likely has a shop somewhere. But for me the convenience and vast choice of online buying could never compensate for the loss of bookstores, record stores, video stores, antique shops and other beloved spots in the real world where I have whiled away some of the most pleasurable afternoons of my life.

While long tail retailers deliver your product in an efficient 21st Century way—real stores provide so much more. First of all, they introduce you to wonderful things you did not know you wanted because you did not know they existed. I have discovered a large share of my all-time favorite books, music, movies and cool stuff for the house by stumbling across them in a shop while I was searching for something else. Or by seeking the opinion of a knowledgeable sales clerk. Serendipity is what makes life delightful, not the orderly fulfillment of your shopping list by means of a computer screen.

Even more important to me is the role these real shops play as a hangout, a place where people can bump into one another and find out about what’s happening around town. Although private businesses, these stores are also a kind of a town square—a semi-public space that is open to everyone.

I doubt that I would be the person I am today without the Record Service in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. It was a well-stocked co-op record shop where I first heard of (and heard) Bruce Springsteen, Miles Davis, Muddy Waters, and Cajun music, all of which helped launch me into an early career as a music critic.

But the Record Service played an even more important role in my civic education, offering walls filled with political posters, petitions at the cash register and stacks of alternative publications from across the country. It was there I discovered the power of journalism as an effective way to explore new ideas. My high school friends and I felt free to hang out at the shop almost everyday, listening intently to the conversations and hashing out our own emerging worldviews, even though we could afford to buy records only once in a while.

At college I learned the writers trade in the great Iowa City bookstores Epstein’s and Prairie Lights—the scene of frequent literary readings and informal salons—almost as much as in the University of Iowa’s well-respected creative writing and journalism departments. At the same time, I picked up a lot of what I know about history, philosophy and sociology while browsing bookstores aisles for hours at a time. Since then, hanging out at interesting shops full of books, records, DVDs, maps, art, imported food or bicycles has been a satisfying habit of mine the way some men play golf or go fishing. It’s what I look forward to at the end of a hard workweek.

More than just personal pleasure, these businesses offer a public service that extends far beyond their inventory of goods. Imagine what your community would feel like without that favorite local bookstore, coffee shop, hardware store, vintage clothing store, tavern, outdoor gear store, diner, art supply store, second-hand shop, or record store. You’d still be able to buy books, coffee, tools, music and beer—but you might not meet your neighbors or know much about what’s going on in the community.

Keep that in mind that next time you’re inclined to order online out of convenience or drive to the big box to save a few dimes. Local businesses are a commons, perhaps not in the precise definition of something that we own together—but certainly in the spirit of something that enriches our lives. We’d be much poorer without them.

For information about helping local businesses thrive as a commercial commons, contact the American Independent Business Alliance , which raises fairness issues such as how internet retailers are exempt from local and state sales taxes and how the vast majority of economic development subsidies go to chain stores, not local businesses.

And if your favorite shop doesn’t carry what you’re looking for, ask them to order it for you. The price is oftentimes the same as if you’d ordered it yourself, and it usually arrives within a few days.