100 Block, Unarmed Merchants and What’s What, Part Two

Gorgeous, hand-crafted mirror from Unarmed Merchants: $18

Yesterday’s post regarding the closing of Unarmed Merchants on the 100 block elicited several comments which then led to a post on Spiniffy by Andrea, who often comments on Stuck Inside of Knoxville. Her post, in turn, generated an agreeing comment from yet another blogger. Several things about this provocative elaboration prompt me to respond. I appreciate the additional thoughts. Andrea lives on the 100 Block and knows the residents there much better than me, obviously, and I appreciate her input.

Her original comment stated in part:

“I live on 100 Block and I’ve been in Unarmed Merchants . . . it was way overpriced to what the residents on this end of the city can afford. And the products aren’t that different from what you can find at other shops in downtown. And it seems like they cater to an older demographic . . . when businesses open up here, they need to keep in mind that the 100 Block is full of young professionals and college students. Typically people without a lot of money, who like to stay up late, and who like to go out to eat or hang out in bars . . . Those are the types of businesses we need on 100 Block. More late night restaurants and bars/coffee shops and younger, funkier retail . . .”

Interestingly, Andrea echoed some of what I heard from the person I spoke to in the store: The 100 block residents are often just starting out and would have a hard time buying some of what the store has to offer, which is why they had hoped for more foot traffic. I disagree in some respects, however. I don’t think the prices were that much different than many other downtown stores and I think what Aaron was trying to do was offer quality products which would be different than what one might find at Target or World Market as Andrea later mentioned in her post.

There is a basic dilemma at work here: Life in an urban environment is more expensive. Any small store not owned by a chain cannot get the deals from vendors that Walmart or Target or Kroger can get. So, to open up a small store in an urban environment, retailers have to charge more because they pay more and deal in much smaller volume, meaning they have to make more off of each purchase.

The only ways that I see for urban residents to avoid paying this higher price is to have Target come downtown or to drive to Target in the suburbs. What happens in each case? In the first we have a bunch of chain stores downtown that take the soul out of the place. We look like any other suburban shopping center. Didn’t we move downtown because we wanted something different?

What if we live here, but drive out to get our groceries, clothes and furnishings? Then businesses won’t come downtown and eventually neither will new residents. The city will become the ghost town it was twenty years ago.

Both Andrea and another commenter suggested more bars and other places to hang out late at night, but I wonder, how many bars can the downtown population support? On Gay Street we have Sapphire, Downtown Brewery and a rumor of another coming across the street. On the Square we have Preservation Pub and Oodles Wine Bar. The Old City, which is only a block from the 100 Block already has seven bars, a pub, a wine bar and an additional bar to open soon. Bars also do little to attract people during the day or on many weekday nights. Can a successful portion of the city be based on weekend nights? Also, how can people who have such a small amount of money afford to much spend very many nights out at bars? It’s not cheap to pay cover charges and drink.

Andrea has developed a great list of potential businesses that go beyond bars. I’ll suggest that you go to her blog to read the complete list. I’d love to see many of the same businesses she wants on the 100 Block in any part of downtown. It seems likely they would be successful. I do maintain what I said at the beginning, however: these things would be more expensive in a city. A bakery, bagel shop, butcher shop or cheese shop would be more expensive than a suburban counter-part. Why would residents of the 100 Block not simply drive to Walmart to get cheaper versions of all these items?

The reason I try to spend as many of my dollars in the city as possible is because I know each of the businesses improves my quality of life downtown. These people took a risk so a service or product I would otherwise have to drive to get is available to me in my neighborhood. Bars and restaurants are great, but we need clothes, art, food, books, electronics, hardware and much more. The only way we get it is if we support the people who provide it.