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The opposite of the big box store

November 19, 2009 History/Preservation, South City, Zoning 8 Comments

Nothing defines “big box” more than Wal-Mart, take this recent bit from Iowa:  “the Wal-Mart Supercenter will cover 150,000 square feet of land — around 40,000 feet fewer than the company originally planned.” (source)  40,000 feet fewer?

In the earlier days of our city we had the small box store.  No, make that tiny box.

4219 Virginia
4219 Virginia (Source: Google Street View)

This tiny storefront was built in front of a single-family detached home just down the street from the streetcar commercial district at Meramec & Virginia (map).  Built in the time before zoning laws this storefront extended the established commercial district just a bit farther.  But head down Virginia or most city streets and storefronts dot the landscape.  Commercial activity was not limited to the strip/power center or mall.  Of course most customers were on foot back then.  Thanks to our progress we are forced to drive a car to make purchases.

I can see in the future adding such structures in the sprawling suburbs.  Attitudes and zoning laws will need to change before we will see these in suburbia but it is an option I think we will see explored to make sprawl more walkable in the next half century.

This storefront on Virginia Ave. was vacant for many years.  Finally a creative couple found the answer.

Last month I attended the opening of The Virginia House, a new art gallery.  I had seen the inside 4-5 years ago so I know they did a lot of work on this tiny space. So the space is no longer offering sundries, it is adding activity to the street.  It is a window to peek into even when closed.

I’m not the only one that likes these storefront.  Michael Allen has featured many on The Ecology of Absence.  Here is a recent post of a fine 3-story home that gained a storefront addition in 1912.

It makes a much more intimate space for a gathering than say a former Wal-Mart big big store.

– Steve Patterson


Currently there are "8 comments" on this Article:

  1. JZ71 says:

    Glad to see that they found a (potential – only time will tell) use here, but the world (apparently) can't survive on art galleries and coffee shops. I've said it before, and I'll say it again – there is no great conspiracy to cover America in strip malls, big box stores and ever-larger grocery stores. They're getting built for one big reason – most people CHOOSE to shop there/in them! You and I may not like their bland architecture and sprawling parking lots, but they probably capture 90%+ of the country's brick-and-mortar revenues, leaving the smaller-scale, “more-appropriate” stores to fight over the remaining 10%. Do the math – this art gallery will be lucky to generate the revenue in one year that any WalMart will generate, easily, in one hour . . .

    • People choose to shop where there are stores and merchandise to buy.

      • JZ71 says:

        People choose to shop where the merchandise is that they want, be it online or in bricks-and-mortar stores.

        This is no more of a neighborhood store anymore than Chuy's is, it's now, hopefully, a destination. You didn't walk to the opening, nor did the majority of the other patrons. Yes, it's cute and should be preserved and repurposed, if possible, but it likely will never be what it was in the 20's or even the 50's. Tastes change and retail evolves. The corner grocery is an archaic relic and will only return when we can't figure how to keep our cars on the road . . .

        • Small storefronts on commercial streets & in neighborhoods again have merchandise to sell and people are buying. Morgan Ford, Macklind, and Cherokee are 3 examples. The volume is nothing like a Wal-Mart but it is proof that customers do patronize smaller neighborhood stores.

  2. Kara7 says:

    I love that this old storefront is being used again and I love that there is more art in the city! But my dream use of old storefronts is that at least some of them return to simply being storefronts. Some would say it's not economically feasible these days to run such small stores, but I would gladly pay 5-10% more to shop there and not have to venture out to a big box in the burbs.

  3. gmichaud says:

    Great to see.
    I know an art store (selling art supplies) opened on Cherokee in the last year is now closed. I didn't feel like it was marketed right, but still there is not an art store in the city again and it was not supported, other than marketing how can the city be organized to support such ventures? That is what is lacking in the case of Virginia House also. What is the ability of transit and urban planning to contribute to the success of an enterprise such as this gallery?

    The Hill especially is a great example of how a neighborhood can be organized around small scale business and be successful on a modest scale This is possible even with a second class mass transit system.
    Transit is organized to have little impact on urban life.

    The urban plan of the Hill comes from an earlier era. The concentration of businesses orientated to serving everyday life is a major feature. (Food, groceries, bocce ball, bakery, tea and coffee and so on).

    Transit is important, but not a factor. If transit was used effectively it could help revitalize areas such as this surrounding Virginia House.

  4. john w. says:

    It all starts small Jim, and hopefully those who love the pure nature of city form, and pleasant encounters such as this small space, will not only continue to support but also enjoy much more of this sort of thing in our city in the years to come. When I read what you write, it's just constantly negative and deflating. I realize you feel you need to remind us all of the stark reality of life in this world, but it just gets old.

    • JZ71 says:

      Sorry you find my comments “negative and deflating”. Sometimes they are – I find blogs where everyone “sings Kumbaya” tiring as well, so I tend not to post “yeah, way to go” comments as often as some others, while I do like to challenge what I see to be flawed assumptions. The reality is that we live in a struggling city that, like the rest of the country, is facing some serious economic challenges. It takes all kinds to make a city better, both young dreamers and cranky old guys, idealists and pragmatists. And like Kara, I'm willing to, and do, pay 5-10% more to support local businesses. I'm, however, in most cases, not willing to pay 30% or 50% more, and I like convenience and selection when I'm shopping for many of the more-mundane things that make life go around. I also don't wish these folks any ill will, I just know the economic realities. With an art gallery, they do have a higher potential for success (I'd buy art from them where I'd never consider WalMart as an art source). But while they're in a neighborhood, they're not really a neighborhood business, one that derives the bulk of their revenues from local residents.

      The Culinaria versus City Grocer tension is the perfect analogy for this. Both serve local residents. One is owned by a local corporation, one is owned by a local entrepreneur. For some people, ownership (and where any profits go) is important. For others, what they can actually buy/who best meets their needs is more more important. I'm in the latter camp – it is all about me, and whoever does the best job of meeting my needs gets my money. Does this stack the deck against the small or new guys? In many cases, yes. Is it “fair”? Probably not. Life is full of choices.

      From the urban perspective, we do face challenges, both in how to keep these nice-but-obsolete structures in viable uses and in blending the contemporary retail model into our older neighborhoods. There will always be a minority of people who will fit their lifestyles into their ideals. The hard reality, however, is that most Americans are lazy. We'll find the easiest way to get from point A to point B (the single-occupant vehicle), we'll shop where we have convenient parking, cheap prices and a large selection (in “suburban retail crap” buildings), and we'll buy processed food from chain supermarkets. It's quick and easy and it works. We're also the majority, so our needs and wants will be met by those greedy capitalists who are only in it for the money. Give us a better answer, and we'll change – cell phones, craft beer and local restaurants all seem to be holding their own against Ma Bell, the USPS, A-B and the big chains.

      So yes, this is a step in the right direction. The problem is we don't need, and can't/won't support 500 more art galleries, coffee shops or antique galleries in St. Louis, and we have at least that many vacant storefronts. Part of it is changing retail trends and part is shrinking our population from 800,000 to 350,000 over 50 years. Sure, we can support another 50 or 100 cute urban storefronts with our present population, but to bring back our true urbanity means bringing back the population and the jobs that once supported all this. What has made Portland, Seattle, Charlotte, Atlanta and Chicago the growth magnets that they are, while we continue to languish? Logistically, geographically, weatherwise and waterwise we should be highly competetive; we're obviously not. Once we grow our local economy, the dynamics will change. The issue won't be saving these old structures, the issues will be gentrification and too much demand . . .


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