The Strand is one of the last great bookstores. It has been owned by the same family for three generations and has 18 miles of books. The store is in a lovely old building on Broadway in New York City. So lovely and old, in fact, that the city’s historic commission wants to designate the Strand Bookstore building a historic landmark.
Bookstore and building owner Nancy Bass Wyden wants nothing to do with it. Old buildings are already more expensive to own than new ones. Insuring a historic landmark costs more than a not-landmark, and repairs must be approved by the landmarks commission. The extra expense associated with owning a landmark building threatens the viability of the bookstore, which, she argues, is a more important part of New York’s urban fabric than the bricks and mortar around it. And yes, interesting architecture is part of what makes our places unique. But a really cool empty building, or one housing a Walgreen’s, only goes so far toward making a vibrant neighborhood.
At about the same time Wyden started her campaign in opposition to the landmark designation, Amazon – every bookstore’s public enemy #1 - announced that thanks to New York’s offer of a $3 billion subsidy, it would locate part of its corporate HQ in Queens. Wyden pointed out the stark contrast between the extra burden that would be placed on her business by the landmark designation, while Amazon, the largest public company in the world by market value (estimated at $797 billion), would benefit from New York’s generous distribution of taxpayer dollars. (Amazon subsequently pulled out when New Yorkers opposed to the deal made them feel unwelcome.) As far as I know, none of the $3 billion New York put on the table for Amazon has been offered to Wyden or other owners of expensive-to-maintain landmark buildings.
Also in the news lately, from the What’ll They Think of Next Department, Walmart and other big box stores have figured out a novel way to reduce their local property taxes. It’s called “dark store theory” and is a tax loophole in a few states’ laws, including Michigan. The theory is that a big box store, when it closes, is essentially worthless real estate because it’s not suited for any other user (and then the owner puts on deed restrictions so the property can’t be sold to a competitor, sealing the deal). So because their building is theoretically obsolete the day it opens, Walmart argues it should be taxed as if the store was vacant – even though it isn’t – while the store’s customers, workers, and delivery vehicles still use public roads and water and sewer services and schools that those taxes are supposed to pay for. Because why shouldn’t Walmart, the world’s largest company by revenue and the world’s largest private employer, develop a piece of property, make it worthless for anything other than a Walmart, then get even more taxpayer subsidies than it already does? According to the Michigan Municipal League, property taxes on Michigan big-box stores averaged $55/square foot before they figured out dark store taxation theory. Based on dark store rates, Walmart and Sam’s Clubs in Michigan now pay an average of $25.68/square foot – less than half their previous rate. Genius, right?
After my stunned reaction to this extraordinary level of naked corporate greed, I was also struck by how eager we are to subsidize giant corporations that clearly don’t need help, while small businesses we love for placemaking and local color and all the rest get hung out to dry. These are policy decisions our leaders make to privilege big corporations over the mom-and-pop businesses they profess to treasure. How can a small business compete when policy-makers stack the deck so obviously in favor of corporate giants?
If we really want to preserve a place’s culture, we need to protect the experiences (like browsing in bookstores and eating good food outside) that make places where we want to live and visit, while we also protect building façades. Traverse City’s Downtown Development Authority has always understood this and has successfully kept all but two chain stores out of downtown (and as Yogi Berra said, nobody goes there any more. It’s too crowded). We need to reevaluate our economic development policy when public dollars subsidize bazillion dollar corporations at the expense of local business, schools, and roads. We need to speak up when giant companies leverage states or cities against each other to get the best deal. Do we really want to incent and support businesses that are out to suck what they can from a community, rather than supporting it? Why?
I heard Maya Angelou say this in an interview with Krista Tippet (On Being): “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can’t be consistently fair or kind or generous or forgiving – any of those – without courage.” I have finally started to figure this out myself and made “be brave” one of my own commandments.
My beloved friend Ann and her husband Art used to own a cool old building on Lake Street in Grand Rapids. It now houses a CVS (photo from Rapid Growth Media). I would much prefer their uber-cool Prisms design store in that space, and it would be a much better complement to the hip Easttown neighborhood (this is just down the street from a restaurant named The Electric Cheetah, for context). I guess CVS is better than a… hmmmm… very tiny Walmart.
When eye candy and brain candy have a love child, you get this: the world’s most beautiful bookstores.
Most of the photos in this post are of my all-time favorite bookstore, the original, one true Shakespeare and Company, owned by the couragous and brilliant Sylvia Beach. I paid homage to it on a trip to Paris, even though it closed well before I was born.
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#strandbooks #darkstoretheory #shakespeareandcompany #historiclandmarks #ordinaryvirtues #placemaking