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Shopkeepers demand recount!

Evanston-based writer Joseph Epstein, in a Wall Street Journal opinion column last week, said the downtown he fondly remembers from his childhood has turned into chain-dominated “Taco Bell country.” That’s not a view shared by the city’s Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber’s executive director, Jonathan Perman, has fired off the following letter to the Journal’s editor.

Dear Editor:

After reading Joseph Epstein’s, “In Praise of Shopkeepers,” opinion, July 17, I was troubled by the partial counting system he employed to inform your readers about the retail landscape of downtown Evanston, IL. Mr. Epstein decries the “paucity of interesting and useful shops” and then launches into a discordant whine about “corporate-owned” businesses.

From his description, it would appear Mr. Epstein lives in downtown Evanston, a very successful transit-oriented neighborhood with a mix of national, regional, and independent stores and restaurants. Here are the facts about Mr. Epstein’s neighborhood (Note: he cited shops within three blocks of his apartment. Our geography will be a bit larger, encompassing the entire downtown of 12 square blocks). The statistics below are only true retail stores, not service businesses or personal care places like hair salons or athletic clubs:

Retail:

Total = 96

Independent = 64 (67%)

Chain = 31 (32%)

Regional = 1 (1%), ie. Blick Art

Restaurants/Eating Establishments:

Total = 83

Independent = 59 (71%)

Chain = 19 (23%)

Regional = 5 (6%), ie. Argo Tea

Totals for all of the above:

Total = 179

Independent = 123 (69%)

Chain = 50 (28%)

Regional = 6 (3%)

Again, this does not include spas, health facilities, personal care, yoga, etc… –of which there are about 40, almost all independently owned.

I would also point out some flaws in Mr. Epstein’s recounting of Evanston’s retail history. He seems to have selective memory as to why people came to downtown Evanston from 1920-1970. Indeed, there were many small shops in Evanston, as there are today, but one cannot ignore the major anchor stores like Marshall Fields (regional chain, later national chain), Wieboldts (regional chain), and Rothschilds, just to name a few, that were a significant draw for regional consumers.

I also found it a bit ironic that Mr. Epstein, who writes regularly for free-market journals such as The Weekly Standard and Commentary, would have a problem with the free-market development of downtown Evanston.

Mr. Epstein professes affection for “curiosity shops”, which, I suppose, are a matter of personal opinion. Yet, It would appear Mr. Epstein’s curiosity is surprisingly limited for he fails to cite such unique destination shops as: Bookman’s Alley, Asinamali (clothing boutique), Audio Consultants, Ixia (florist), The Comix Revolution, Ethical Planet (environmental products), and Turin Bicycle – all of which are just steps from his home.

And, for a fellow who just wrote a biography about Fred Astaire, Mr. Epstein might look to the Giordano Dance School as a local anchor that generates significant retail and restaurant traffic on Davis Street and other nearby streets in downtown Evanston.

Mr. Epstein’s comparative study is Andersonville, essentially a one street shopping area in Chicago that is anchored by a large Jewel/Osco (national chain) with a big surface parking lot. While dominated by independents like downtown Evanston, Andersonville also has the requisite T-Mobile and Starbucks.

True, Andersonville may be more “gayified”, in Mr. Epstein’s words, (though I don’t know how one measures that) but it is no more diverse (maybe even less) in terms of age, race, and ethnicity.

Finally, Mr. Epstein fires a shot at the “two-hundred social workers, five-hundred psychotherapists, and a thousand second-rate poets” (I assume he includes himself in that caste) who he ranks well below the humble shopkeeper. Instead of ranking and grouping, one might look at the interdependency of these occupations and how they rely on one another to consume the product or service that they offer.

Mr. Epstein is indeed a witty writer and observer but he surely doesn’t know how to count and he should be careful not to substitute wit for fact.

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