Small Storefronts, Big Success

April 3, 2012
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Oxford, England is my new favorite city. I went there recently to visit a friend who is working for the university’s business school.

I saw all the usual things – the Ashmolean Museum, the Bodleian Library, Balliol and Magdalen colleges—you’ve probably seen these things yourself.

We took a bus trip out into the Cotswolds and marveled at the limited amount of sprawl. We walked along the canals where low, long houseboats bobbed contentedly. England was well into a beautiful spring, ahead of Boston even in this year of early blooming. We dined at pubs and restaurants that put to rest forever the reputation England has had for bad food. There wasn’t any bad food to be had.

All those things were nice. But what really impressed me was the street life.  In spite of narrow sidewalks, speeding cars and dozens of bikes, the hordes of pedestrians were having the time of their lives.

And why shouldn’t they? In small buildings and large, shop fronts were half the size of those in the North End and on Beacon Hill. So there was a lot to look at and a lot of goods and services to satisfy almost any desire or need. American retail experts have long understood that the more doorways a street has, the more success businesses enjoy. Oxford demonstrated this beautifully, and there were few empty storefronts.

My friend lived in Jericho, a neighborhood made famous by PBS’s Inspector Morse, whose beat is the city of Oxford. “The Dead of Jericho” was the first installment in that television series way back in the 1980s. Her apartment was in an old factory building along a canal. The apartments were contemporary inside but on the outside things looked, not old exactly, but clean and settled, with paths hugging buildings and twisting and turning – no developer straight lines or plantings here. A pleasant sense of enclosure defined it all. A cemetery along the side of a main path drew birds and gave an opportunity for plantings of daffodils everywhere.

Her neighborhood had several small groceries—not “convenience” stores with only packaged food-like items. Three stationery stores, each different from the others, co-existed happily along six blocks. As tourists do in Boston, I nipped into one of these shops for a souvenir, although it wasn’t for me. I bought a paper cupcake presentation stand kit for a special 12-year-old I know who has taken up cupcake making as a hobby. She had as much fun putting it together as she has had filling it with cupcakes. It’s that kind of shopping opportunity that keeps small-scale retail alive—an interesting shop whose owner has made sure you can take away something special that you’d have trouble finding in a chain or on the Internet.

My friend’s neighborhood had a small movie theatre showing at least four movies, and we went to see one of them because it was showing at the right time and was so convenient. I’m not sure how the proprietors squeezed four different screens into so small a space, but they managed. It’s not that I don’t enjoy heading over to Loews or Harvard Square but it is typically an expedition, not a spontaneous act. And the opportunity to be spontaneous has to be one of the privileges of city life.

Jericho had several florists. It had two bike stores. And all of downtown Boston has maybe one? As you walked into the more central part of Oxford, there was a magic and costume store, many clothing shops, a bridal shop, a shop for pots and pans, several book shops, and few chains such as the Museum of Useful Things. There was a store selling mostly kaleidoscopes. How could a store selling only kaleidoscopes make it in the marketplace? I don’t know, but it was full of products and people and looked as if it had been there a long time. There were some banks and real estate offices, my favorite kinds of regrettable businesses, but they seemed fine since there weren’t too many of them. All in all, Oxford looked like Oxford – it didn’t look like London or New York or even the small nearby villages. It was a place with a sense of place.

Apparently England has had a recession too, but you wouldn’t know it from walking around Oxford. Like Boston, it has many students. While students have less disposable income than a young working man or woman, in great numbers their economic impact is great. But students alone can’t account for Oxford’s appeal and merchandising success.

Over the years, Boston residents and merchants have improved their understanding of what makes good retail. We no longer tear down shops to build a mall, as we did in Charlestown. We pay lip service, at least, to small independent shops, although we don’t always have enough of them. But Oxford was working perfectly for its merchants. Go there. See what a good experience can be had along its streets. If you make your living depending on the streets of Boston, maybe you can deduct it as a business expense.

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