Listen to the owner of a neighborhood shop, as he describes his devotion to the customers and the community that supports him. Hear the excitement of the child who runs in for a free lollipop, or the gratitude of parents who rely on the store as a safe haven for their kids. Try to understand the appreciation of a grateful customer who was given credit when times were hard, or the way a neighborhood relies on the store as a place to gather, to buy necessities, and ultimately to feel like a part of something larger. Having witnessed all this, watch the shop owner as he closes his storefront gate for the very last time—ever.
Each day we are presented with the choice of whether to support locally owned businesses. Do you order your morning coffee from a different stranger each morning, or does your neighborhood shop start pouring “the usual” as you walk in the door? Do you fill your prescriptions at the 24-hour store that sells milk and curling irons, or at the corner pharmacy that has been on your block forever? Do you hunt for an extension cord or light bulb in Aisle 8 of Lower Level 2, or do you chat with the owner of your local hardware store and then buy your items from him?Now stop and ask yourself this question: Why should I care–beyond that pang of nostalgia we all feel?
These seemingly innocuous decisions affect us and those around us in countless ways, from the texture of our daily experience, to the character of our neighborhoods, to the evolution of our broader social relations. Every day, we’re deciding the fate of locally owned businesses throughout our cities. Yet, all too often, we take the local store for granted–until the day it is gone.
“It is possible to watch the sky from morning to midnight … without ever being able to put your finger on the precise point where a qualitative change takes place; no one can say, “It is exactly here that twilight becomes night,” … One can go a long way into a situation … such a long way that suddenly one realizes the change has already been made, is already history, and one rides along then on the sense of an inevitability, a too-lateness … which for one reason or another, [one] does not see fit to question.”I began shooting my documentary, Twilight Becomes Night, several years ago, when I noticed so many neighborhood shops disappearing from the streets of Manhattan. The title comes from a John Barth line in The End of the Road:
Since I began shooting, I have documented the last day for a string of shops: M & E Hardware; Industrial Plastics; Uncle Sam’s Umbrella Repair Shop; The Basket Shop; Michael’s Barber Shop; and Zito’s Bakery. I have also interviewed the owners of local stores that remain in business, such as the Record Shack, Veteran’s Chair Caning and Repair, Albanese Butcher Shop, The Flower Stall, and Capital Deli. I have talked with the men and women who work at these stores, and I have talked with the customers. The struggles of these sometime precarious operations aren’t hard to grasp.
Dr. Peter Whybrow, director of the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute and author of American Mania: When More Is Not Enough, says local merchants serve as “social tethers” in our communities. The human touch you get from a merchant who knows you can literally bolster the body’s immune system and lower your level of stress. In other words, if you shop local, you might live longer-or at least better.While resigned regret is perhaps the most immediate reaction to the closing of a neighborhood shop, there are more profound reasons for concern. People who study the way cities work have found a strong correlation between the presence of locally owned shops, and our financial, social, mental, and physical health.
And yet, we’ve all witnessed the big chains moving into our neighborhoods. Certainly these brand-name restaurants and 24-hour pharmacies may offer benefits-convenience, consistency, and even the surprising pleasure of anonymity. Some would argue that big stores offer lower prices than you’d find at a local business. But the cost of losing that little drug store may far outweigh the savings on that mega-size bottle of shampoo.Neighborhood shops tend to rely on other local suppliers and services, and they tailor their offerings to the needs of their community. They create more jobs at home, and they are more likely to stay in business during hard times.
In 2002, the Suba Pharmacy, a small, neighborhood shop owned by Bashir Suba at Broadway and 104th Street, was competing with two Duane Reades, one Rite Aid, and one incoming CVS – all within several blocks of the pharmacy. The landlord was threatening eviction to make room for a bank.It may seem that the big-box retailers will take over, but their dominance is not inevitable.
Mr. Suba appealed to the community, and the community responded. A petition signed by about 4,000 people urged the boycott of the CVS and encouraged patronizing Suba Pharmacy. The neighborhood and its political leaders got involved and helped stave off the eviction. The battle was worth it: The CVS closed and Suba Pharmacy remains open today, beloved by customers and neighbors.
Twilight Becomes Night reminds us that nostalgia is only a very small part of what mom-and-pop stores mean to our society. With so much at stake, it is worth considering our choices, before the storefront gate is closed for the last time.
Twilight Becomes Night is currently in post-production, and I am actively seeking funds to complete the film by early 2006. Please visit TwilightBecomesNight.com for further information about the project and for information about how to make tax-deductible donations via Women Make movies, the film’s fiscal sponsor.