Small businesses struggle against big box stores, Amazon, and luxury developers … and adapt

As the owner of a small business specializing in genealogy supplies, and someone who is passionate about local history, I follow several historical Facebook groups focused on neighborhoods in Newton Massachusetts and northern New York. It’s a lot of fun looking at the old photos and reminiscing about people or activities or buildings from decades ago. The photo at the top of this page is from near where I grew up – the line of shops on Washington Street in West Newton, near the former location for the West Newton branch of the Newton Free Library.

I’ve noticed people are particularly delighted by the pictures of main streets commercial districts and the small shops that lined the street (sample comments edited and anonymized):

“That was a great place to grow up … we would walk up town go to the drug store and get a soda that they mixed at the counter.”

“When I was 6 years old I would go the corner market with a note and they would pick the goods off of the shelves and put them in the bag along with any change.”

“I remember there was a second hand store that helped my mom when we had no money … the owner gave my mom winter boots, toys, decorations, so much love … My mom went back every year to buy things to help her business keep going and we became like family.”

“My Dad would drop me and Mom off near Main Street. We’d stroll to the shoe shop and Mom would get me my Hush Puppy shoes for school. Then off to Woolworth’s for a chocolate milkshake … it was our tradition!

“Next to Dad’s barbershop, the apple pie a la mode at the Lounge could not be beat!”

People clearly appreciated the personal touch. They loved the genuine concern the owners and staff showed for their customers. And there was mutual trust.

Broken cycle of small business renewal

Many of those little shops and eateries and small department stores are long gone. Furthermore, on main streets and crossroads across North America, the cycle of small businesses closing and new ones taking their place has been broken.

st lawrence county 1970s

Over the summer when I visited northern New York, I drove down the street shown in the photo above, and there were boarded-up windows everywhere. It turns out that the remaining local shops were dealt a fatal blow in the early 2000s after Walmart came to town, building a giant superstore a few miles away along the state highway. Business evaporated, and the local businesses shut down. It’s a typical pattern, the so-called “Walmart effect,” particularly when Walmart builds new stores in rural areas:

walmart effect small businessIn my own hometown near Boston, a larger population base gives local small businesses a better chance of survival against the big box retailers. But there are other threats, from Amazon to COVID. Here in Newton, a looming crisis for small businesses is the appearance of luxury apartment developers, who buy out local property owners, and redevelop the land into giant complexes that favor high-end retail tenants and national franchises over family-owned businesses and shops.

There is one bright spot for small businesses like ours: Online stores and tools that help us find new customers and stay connected with old ones, no matter where they happen to live.

As you complete your holiday shopping, please give extra consideration to small businesses, whether it’s a local gift shop in Auburndale or a trusted specialty retailer. We strive to provide that personal touch, mutual trust, and special products that you won’t find elsewhere.