Vroman’s is the canary in the coal mine for Pasadena.
This week, the venerable bookstore emailed a plea for customers to return to shopping instore and online. Unless Pasadenans rally, the 126-year-old business may close its doors.
Miners used canaries to alert them to dangerous levels of carbon dioxide. When a tiny bird keeled over from lack of oxygen, it was an early warning to act before it was too late.
Small businesses are facing a mass extinction event. Fortune Magazine reports the pandemic has wiped out one of every five businesses in America. Many others are like Vroman’s – desperately hanging on.
COVID-19 has simply accelerated ongoing trends. Back in the Eighties, half of retail sales went to independent stores. That’s fallen by half as Walmart and Amazon have led the growth of superstores and online sales. While most of us are sentimental about mom and pop stores, we’ve made deliberate (if unconscious) choices as consumers and voters that favor the giants.
Losing local businesses means more than vacant storefronts and loss of once-cherished landmarks. It means devastating losses of jobs and opportunities. According to Fortune, small and midsize businesses “roughly half the workforce” in America, while big companies ruthlessly automate to drive down labor costs. Local businesses have long been the gateway to the American Dream for entrepreneurs, particularly immigrants, women and people of color. The “gig economy” offers part-time work but zero opportunity to build wealth.
Local communities suffer too. Pasadena has long thrived with its mix of businesses serving both local customers and visitors. Nurseries like Lincoln Avenue and Bellefontaine have offered local gardeners richer varieties and more personalized service than giants like Home Depot. Restaurants like Merida, All India, Green Street and Mi Piace offer distinctive experiences different from the standardized venues like the Cheesecake Factory and McDonalds. Old Pasadena and other Pasadena commercial areas will shrivel if the restaurants are the same as in Alhambra, Glendale or Arcadia and the stores offer the exact same products you can get online, delivered to your door.
Corporate businesses don’t reinvest their earnings in local communities, according to a raft of economic studies. One study done by the Maine Center for Economic Policy found that “in general every $100 spent at a local business generates an additional $58.03 in local impact. By comparison, $100 spent at a representative national chain store generates $33.43 in local impact.” So when a business like Vroman’s closes, it is not just its owners, employees and customers who feel the loss. So will the Playhouse Business District and other local businesses as fewer dollars recirculate in our town.
There’s also a direct hit to local nonprofits. Through its “Give Back” program, Vroman’s customers have channeled $750,000 to Pasadena charities. Who supports local schools, youth sports programs and service clubs? It’s mom and pops – who also give summer jobs to local youth.
So what can be done? If Pasadena is content to morph into the kind of suburb with only chain businesses and restaurants, nothing. We can rely on Amazon, Starbucks, Target and Del Taco.
On the other hand, if we want to revitalize local business to maintain unique offerings, sustain neighborhood business districts, retain good jobs, and support local non-profits, then we can’t be complacent.
Here are three things we can do today – as a foundation for a long-term commitment to ensuring that local businesses are not just a historic legacy, but are a vibrant part of Pasadena’s future:
1). Make conscious choices to spend your money at local businesses. Buy a book (or better a couple of books) from Vroman’s today. Go online and use curbside pickup or put on a mask and browse the shelves for an unexpected find. If we can save Vroman’s it can be a model for Pasadena bucking national trends.
2). Press candidates in the November election for what they’ve done and what they specifically will do to create a level playing field for local businesses. Will they work to reverse decades of policies that favor big businesses in lending, leasing, zoning and procurement? What are the policies they will pursue to support a favorable climate for local businesses to thrive and continue to serve our community?
3). Once the election is behind us, Pasadena needs a thorough re-examination of our preferred future. In a drastically changing world, it’s foolhardy to sit on our assets. Pasadena did that once before. The thriving city of the Twenties was hit hard by the Depression and World War II. Complacency set in, local leaders failed to change with the times. By the Sixties, Pasadena was suffering from national trends of racial segregation, urban decline and crime. In response, the City resorted to radical physical surgery that bulldozed vast areas of the city to make way for redevelopment and the 210 Freeway. Equally titanic economic, technological and demographic changes are reshaping our world and Pasadena can’t rely on standing pat.
Time is short. Don’t be complacent. Vroman’s needs your business today! And so do hundreds of other local businesses without Vroman’s beloved history – businesses owned by immigrants, women, people of color and those with the courage, tenacity and resilience to start and sustain them..
Rick Cole is a former Mayor of Pasadena.