A Journal of the Plague Year–chapter 173

American Express, the champion of mom-and-pop stores, offers a reminder.

Sunday, November 22

Two memories: When I first came to live in New York City, my boss described how he’d gone looking to match this very old and odd wallpaper from his house. And of course, he’d found it somewhere. “You can get anything in New York,” he’d said. I suspect that he’d found the wallpaper in one of the dozens of quirky small shops that then existed in the city. 

Then, in the early 2000s, I was visiting Chicago, where I attended the book industry’s annual convention, BookExpo. Leaving to go back to NYC, I took a shuttle bus to the airport and got into conversation with others. Talking about Chicago with a flight attendant, she said that she longed for the days, not so very long past, when every city she went to had different retail shops and individualized cultures. “Now, they’re all pretty much the same,” she said. The same clothing stores, the same chain hotels, even many of the same restaurants. 

My New York City neighborhood around Union Square has certainly been homogenized for many years now. Back in the 1980s, a lot of old and very quirky New York could be found in the area. But for some years, the real estate there has been dominated by many of the same stores that you’d find in a mall or shopping strip anywhere. Staples, Nordstrom, Best Buy,  Citi and Chase banks, Wells Fargo, DSW, Starbucks, Panera Bread, Dunkin’, Whole Foods, Walgreens, Barnes & Noble.

Will the pandemic’s shutdown only make the consolidation in retail and banking more intense, as the few remaining small and independent stores bite the dust? Or, is it possible that a combination of factors could lead to a revival of the small and quirky enterprises?

Time was, independent bookstores saw the big-box guys like Barnes & Noble and Borders as threatening to drive them out of business. Then came amazon.com. Now Borders is a distant memory, and  Barnes & Noble almost seems to be in some other, non-bookselling business. 

The online and home-delivering retailers, aided by COVID-19, seem to be on their way to driving big-box stores and retail chains out of business. But it could be a long time before any entities emerge that are able to absorb all the vacant NYC storefront space. But maybe, just maybe, once the pandemic passes there could be a renaissance of small enterprises, some initially as short-term, pop-up outlets. A lot depends upon whether big real estate sees fit to drop the rents. And they may not—Wall Street, which has securitized a lot of real estate, may not let rents fall lest the underlying value of the buildings be affected. A few years, maybe decades, must elapse before we’ll know the answer.

I’ve just received an e-mail from American Express (that champion of mom-and-pop enterprises) urging me to “shop small” during the holiday season. There’s a map attachment that lets you search a zip code to find a bunch of such small businesses. But when I enter 10003, the East Village zip code, a lot of what appears are restaurants. And that is certainly one of the most-endangered business sectors around—are they even allowed to be open? One day yes, the next day, no. 

Dinner: Latin American picadillo, rice, and a green salad.

Entertainment: more episodes of Netflix’ The Crown and more As Time Goes By.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 44

Once a Union Square mainstay.

Tuesday, April 21

Every day I get up, make coffee and oatmeal, and at least make a start on reading The New York Times. When in New York City—I live right on Union Square—I may go out early to Trader Joe’s or perhaps to a doctor’s appointment. Other errands may include a walk to the post office, to the Fed Ex at Astor Place where I make photocopies of this and that, and to the gym on Eighth Avenue for yoga lessons. On Wednesdays and Fridays, I generally go to the Union Square greenmarket, where farmers from New Jersey and upstate New York sell fresh fruit and vegetables, honey, cheeses, and bread.

Right now, it seems I may never perform any of these New York City errands again.

One Times story suggests that New York itself may never be the same: The article revisits a number of previous calamities to hit the city, including the September 11 terror attacks and the 1970s fiscal crisis. In the latter case, says Kathryn Wylde, president of business group The Partnership for New York City, “It took four or five years for a lot of the city to empty out,” then “it took three or four decades to bring them back.”

Empty out? Well of course, New York City is always in the process of emptying itself out and refilling. It’s not the same from one day to the next. New York’s ever-changing nature is one of the things that makes the city interesting. New restaurants and stores are always popping up. That little hole-in-the-wall place that you went to for years is likely to disappear. But then, something new, and almost as interesting, may well crop up. Tycoon Donut is long gone, but the croissants at Pain Quotidian are a pretty good if pricey replacement.

Back in the 1980s, when I first moved to New York, the Union Square area was quite dangerous. Drug deals went down regularly in the park, and the cops would go into surrounding office buildings and peer out of the windows in order to direct drug busts there. In a few years, that version of Union Square went away—taking with it such quaint and past-their-prime institutions as Luchow’s restaurant, Amalgamated Bank, and the Cedar Tavern. On the upside, replacements included such trendy if expensive hangouts as the Union Square Cafe—and, on the downside, big-box retailers including Barnes & Noble books, Kids R Us, and Staples. 

Now, facing the square, there’s little besides large retailers and mega-banks such as Chase and Citibank.

But on the side streets, there are still little shoe-repair shops, second-hand clothing places, dance studios, and an ever-expanding number of coffee joints. Within walking distance, such long-running survivors as coffee roaster Porto Rico Importing Co., Strand books, and Astor Wines & Spirits have been hanging in there. Nonetheless, in February, I began noticing a great number of vacant storefronts. Rents were to blame, I assumed—the ever-more-greedy landlords pushing the small-fry out. The landlords seem willing to suffer several months of vacancy in order to get new tenants who are able to pay market-rate prices.

And rents have risen astronomically over the decades. My dentist, whose office is in a building facing the square, told me that when he first located there back in the 1980s, his rent was a few hundred dollars a month. Now, I believe he said, the rents on his office suite run $15,000 a month. It’s anybody’s guess just how he can afford it.

Will this change? Will landlords see that they have no choice but to accept lower rents—allowing small-fry enterprises to return? And just how does this work? What invisible hands tap the landlords on the shoulder, saying: “Hey, buddy, it’s time to let the rents slide a bit.”

A few years back, Emily and I traveled to Vienna, Austria, where we stayed in a small guest house in the Neubau neighborhood. The largely residential area included a number of coffee shops, bakeries, beisls (or restaurants), the Naschmarkt (produce stalls), and innumerable little purveyors of candy, meats, toys, and so forth. Everything seemed very quaint and charming, like a visit to the early 1960s in an American town. Perhaps after a period of near-death, the East Village can become such an idyll, with a flowering of small enterprises. Maybe even Tycoon Donut will return. Stranger things have happened.

Dinner tonight (presumably after the Peapod delivery!): Black beans and rice along with a lettuce and cucumber salad.

Entertainment: There are five remaining episodes of Babylon Berlin—so a couple of those plus one Lovejoy and one Twilight Zone.