Big-Box, Boutique . . . Can't We Have It All?
Remember the days when, for so many people, going shopping meant a trip to the big city? That's where we headed back when I was growing up outside Dallas in the late 1950s. Dallas lured us with its myriad stores, and we loved nothing more than to spend a day making the rounds of the bazaars, from the toniest departments of Neiman Marcus to the bargain-basement emporia of Walgreens or Sanger's.
This all started changing decades ago, of course, as glitzy downtown department stores dried up like dead leaves and the suburbs, with their pleasure-palace malls, blossomed. But nowadays, if you live someplace like urban Dallas or the District, you could be forgiven for developing a real inferiority complex about your purchasing power. In so many ways, in too many places, shopping today is all about leaving the big city behind.
Washington, where I've lived for more than 30 years, was never that much of a shopping town. Oh, downtown (an area I define roughly as between the Mall and Dupont Circle and over to Rock Creek) had a respectable lineup of stores in its day, of course, but no one would have called it a shopping mecca. Maybe being thought of as a place to shop is simply too flippantly out of character for the city that is not only the nation's capital but also the capital of the Free World.
I suspect that may have something to do with the ambivalence now in the air over the so-called big-box stores -- the Wal-Marts, Kmarts, Targets and Costcos -- and their efforts to break past city boundaries. Target has apparently succeeded and is heading into Columbia Heights, and Costco is negotiating a deal in Ward 5. But Wal-Mart just can't cash in; a bill before the D.C. Council is aimed at locking the retailer out of the city for good -- and could inadvertently stop Costco and Target, too.
When it comes to these big-box stores, I, like many urban dwellers, am conflicted. We like the convenience and good prices that come with the all-under-one-roof concept, but we also love the amenities a city bestows, the small-scale neighborhoods we make for ourselves in the midst of density.
I love that in a five-minute walk from my home in Cleveland Park, I have access to a drugstore and a grocery store, a bank, a toy store, gift shops, coffee shops and restaurants. I love that at the end of a 15-minute downhill walk (we won't go into the uphill return), there's a Metro stop, a movie house, a health food store, more coffee shops, restaurants, grocery stores and specialty shops. A 30- to 45-minute walk takes me to Adams Morgan or downtown or Georgetown or Friendship Heights. Used to be, I could hit Sears and Hechinger's on the way to Friendship Heights. No car needed.
Sadly, though, this is only half the picture. There's also the fact that while housing prices soar and signs of reurbanization abound, it's still hard to find a hardware store downtown, while the only major retail newcomer is Whole Foods Market, whose target clientele is the moneyed, diet-conscious crowd. One of my friends declares that Washington's the kind of city where you have to buy 10 sandwiches to get yourself a loaf of bread.
Few who don't work or live in the vicinity would think of going to downtown D.C. or any of the other urban centers for serious shopping of almost any kind. We seldom find real bargains or a large spectrum of goods. This means, however, that for a lot of us, including me, if you want to make much more than pit stops at a grocery or drug store, a car becomes a necessity.
It wasn't, as I say, always this way. Twenty years ago, I lost my heart in G.C. Murphy's (a four-minute walk from my home) and cried in vain when it closed 16 years later. For those of you who never had the pleasure, Murphy's once sprawled over most of a block on upper Wisconsin Avenue, across from Washington National Cathedral. You got a Target, Kmart and Wal-Mart rolled into one. I exaggerate, but not by much. Yet the space was neither overwhelming nor out of character with the buildings around it. I still wear a pair of their red $6 sneakers. My children wore their pajamas, T-shirts and underwear -- as did my husband and I. Office and school supplies were not considered "seasonal" items. Small appliances and electronics were available, as were rugs, plants, pet food and watch repair. In one cubbyhole, a most helpful woman would send faxes, print out manuscripts, notarize legal documents, take back those catalogue goodies that looked so much better on the page and, as importantly, commiserate with you.
But then one day Murphy's, like so many of the old variety stores, rolled up its carpet and stole out of town. We're still not really sure what happened.
Now, buying even half of these goods and services requires a car trip with many stops and no guarantee of a reasonable price for the effort. Then again, I can make a single car trip to one of the big-box monstrosities that take me almost an hour to get to, but with the price of gas being what it is, I'm not sure the bargains are as good as they sound. Also, I suspect that my tax dollars are subsidizing inadequate health-care benefits for too many of these corporations' employees; I won't even mention the hidden costs for the pollution I'm creating.
I readily admit I am a snob about big-box stores and sympathize with those in the area who are fighting against them as I write this piece. Those places have destroyed too much of our landscape, driven away too many small businesses, encouraged even more car use than necessary, and created traffic problems, possibly even depressed wages -- you know the litany.