For the past 15 years, my family has operated a modest teriyaki stand in a mall in Everett, Wash., a former blue-collar community with an improving economic outlook. Unlike the upscale chains that dominate glittery, high-end shopping centers, many of the businesses at our mall are family-owned. By spending most of my childhood at the mall, I got to know many business owners, workers and the mall’s management, and I’ve had the unique privilege of seeing how small businesses emerge, struggle and thrive. Likewise, I’ve experienced the quiet tragedy of their decline.
Our teriyaki stand has already weathered the Great Recession and the bankruptcies of previous anchors, such as Mervyn’s in 2008. Fortunately, the mall’s management was able to attract other anchor stores or redevelop large vacant spaces to accommodate multiple smaller businesses. Throughout it all, our restaurant continued to serve marinated beef, chicken and pork piled over steaming rice to shoppers and mall workers alike. Before I went away to school, I helped out when I could, constructing salads and manning the cash register during the holiday rush or when someone fell ill.
When our family found out this month that Macy’s would be pulling out of our shopping center, we were disheartened but not terribly surprised, as this trend has been going on for a while. Still, unless the vacant space is taken over by another anchor store or is redeveloped, fewer customers will be inclined to come to the mall to patronize other businesses or the food court. In the worst-case scenario, the small stores and restaurants will start shutting down, draining the mall of its vitality and threatening to send it into insolvency.
Our restaurant is small, but it has been the source of our pride and our livelihood since we arrived in America (some of us came in the early ’90s and others after the Asian financial crisis in 1997.) For many other business owners at our mall, as well, their stores are the fruit of their investments, hopes and labors. From a young Iraqi couple pouring their savings into a new Mediterranean restaurant to give their children a more comfortable life, to a single mother scoping out the latest trends for her apparel store, to an airbrush painter selling custom T-shirts to express his artistry while making a living, people have pinned their futures on their businesses. And we depended on one another, as well. From time to time, the other restaurant owners in the food court would give us free burritos or smoothies, which we’d reciprocate with plates of spicy chicken, a crowd favorite.
Thousands of similar enterprises throughout the country are at risk in the face of shifting consumer trends. Although holiday sales improved in 2016 over 2015, department stores have struggled as customers take their shopping sprees online rather than to brick-and-mortar stores. This year, Amazon (whose founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, also owns The Washington Post) is on track to overtake Macy’s as America’s biggest apparel retailer. Of course, disruptions are hardly new, and online and mobile enterprises make our day-to-day lives much more convenient. But they also shake up the lives of those using old business models. Our unrelenting technological revolution has losers as well as winners.
The day after the Macy’s announcement, the mood at our mall was subdued, as workers and store owners apprehensively pondered their futures. One of our regulars — a sales associate at Macy’s who has been working at the mall longer than we’ve been in business — told us that her position had been terminated but still encouraged us to come to the store’s closing sales.
For small-business owners, there is never a guarantee of job security or success. Economic forces have always been beyond our control; all we can do is adapt to our immediate circumstances. As for our teriyaki stand, we’ll continue to work hard to feed our customers and ourselves, hoping earnestly for a new anchor tenant or a redevelopment that may or may not come.