Why Neighborhoods Need Brick and Mortar

by Bill Lindeke

Geographer Bill Lindeke has an eye for the urban details that make the Twin Cities pleasurable, livable, and promising–and when those details have something to do with the walkable portions of our streets, they are likely to appear as images or words in his blog, Twin City Sidewalks. In this post, he highlights a Saint Paul store that embodies–and symbolizes–why, in an age of burgeoning online commerce, we will always need real places to buy things.

One of my favorite shops in all of St Paul is called Practical Goods, on Randolph Avenue. It’s a thrift-store type of thing that sells lots of antique-y, vintage, and thrift-type stuff, only the woman who runs it, Wendi [Ward], has a particular emphasis on “material culture.” She requires that everything there be actually useful in your everyday life, and will happily explain to you, for example, the difference between a corn pot, a soup pot, and a stock pot, why rubber boots are great for puddles, or how to use a mill-style coffee grinder.

If Practical Goods is open, Wendi will be sitting at her desk and available to chat. And sometimes, especially on slow days, when you buy something she’ll give you her flier about why supporting small businesses is good for neighborhoods.

Wendi’s point here is that internet commerce is bad for cities. This is something I’ve heard before (except in Seattle). Each year, more and more retail activity shifts online, away from actual “bricks and mortar” stores. This is one of the big reasons why Best Buy’s stock has been going down the toilet, and why Target is spending so much energy trying to reduce “showrooming.” Ask anyone who sells used books or antiques, and that same problem is plaguing local old-stuff merchants as well.

Adding to the List

Sure, there are lots of great reasons to shop at Practical Goods. But right now I’m interested in the part of her flier that points to urban design issues, the intangible benefits that an actual store provides within the city. Foremost on this list is tax base for the city, but Wendi also adds in her public bathroom. (It’s a good one, too.)

I’d make a few more additions to the list:

Eyes on the Street- Jane Jacobs’ idea that shopkeepers, snoops, and just-plain-folks-with-eyes make a neighborhood safer and more stable by being there, aware, and able to call out or call the police, or just to help people if they need anything or something crazy occurs. Sitting as she does each day in her shop with the window before her, Wendi is a great example of eyes on the street, and probably does a lot to improve the atmosphere of Randolph Avenue.

Interesting Window Displays, Sidewalk Wares- As I mentioned recently, having interesting windows and things out on the sidewalk makes walking worthwhile. Well, Wendi’s shop is one of the best! Each day she puts out a series of practical goods on the sidewalk, things like rakes and a rainbow of rubber boots lined up near the street tree. Her windows are wonders, and put smiles on faces of anyone with feet.

Walkable Neighborhood Node- Sidewalks are almost useless unless there’s somewhere to walk. We need more mixed-use stores in our neighborhoods, more little shops like Practical Goods where you can buy something you might need, like a pair of moccasins or a navy teapot.

Listen up, my generation! Everything can’t go online. Imagine a Twin Cities without antique stores or bookstores or record shops. I’m fine with everyone shopping online instead of at exploitative corporate big boxes (ahem–Trader Joe’s). But if you’re going online to buy skillets or 45s or local music online instead of at Practical Goods or Hymie’s or the Electric Fetus just to save a few dollars, why not move out to Blaine, cut out the middleman, and speed up the urban lobotomy?

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