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10 Years After: The Beginning of the End for Big Boxes?

Note: Today I am re-publishing here a couple of articles that originally appeared in the Genesee Sun online newspaper. Thanks to Publisher Josh Williams for giving me a new platform!
Many local people were surprised by the Jan. 3rd closing of the Geneseo Staples store. At the time, much blame was placed in this news outlet and elsewhere on a supposedly greedy landlord jacking up rents. Readers of the financial press, however, may be aware that there is a little more to the story.
If you search “Staples store closing” you will find that there are a rash of similar stories from all over the country. In fact Staples announced in November that they expected to close 170 stores in 2014! This comes amid a continuing trend of falling sales and earnings and a proposal last week that Staples merge with arch-rival Office Max. It seems that the miracle economic engine allegedly created by Bain Capital wunderkind Mitt Romney some 30 years ago is growing a little long in the tooth!
Of course most people are aware that the economy has never really recovered from the Great Recession that started in 2008, but another big reason for Staples’s problems is the prevalence of online shopping which has continued to bleed bricks and mortar retail in many categories. (See
The fact that this column is appearing in an online newspaper is just one example of the dramatic changes that have occurred in our economy over the last 15 years since the Internet Anschluss. As publisher of my own quaint “ink on crushed wood” venture not so long ago I am intimately familiar with this process. (At one time I even owned my very own brick and mortar building on Main Street!) That perch provided me with a front row seat on the Great Geneseo Big Box War, in which I eventually became an active combatant.
Looking back through the Clarion archives I see that this year marks the 10th Anniversary of the opening of Geneseo’s 205,000 square foot Super Wal-Mart, the King of all local Big Boxes. That event created a big vacancy in the Geneseo Plaza when the old mini Wal-Mart (only 94,000 square feet) moved out. It took almost three years to fill, but eventually Staples moved into part of that space opening in the fall of 2008. A little more than 6 years later they are gone!
Even before the new Super Wal-Mart had opened, a proposal was floated in March of 2005 to build a 170,000 square foot Lowes across the street in the so-called Gateway District. I can still remember my horror when I first heard of this monstrosity at a presentation by then Town Supervisor Wes Kennison at my weekly Rotary Club meeting. As I recall, Wes had read a book about the “invisible poor” and dreamed of being their champion by bringing the Gospel of low prices to the masses.
Space does not allow me to recount the entire history of that War, but the interested reader can refer to the archives of this “Clarion Call” column or my partner in crime Bill Lofquist’s excellent blog “Preserving Small Towns.
The bottom line, however, is that the rag tag group of rebels known as PDDG (Please Don’t Destroy Geneseo) won the war after losing every battle. We won not because our cause was just (even though it was) or because of the brilliance of our strategy (which goes without saying), but because in the end the Lowe’s proposal, in fact the whole dream of a Big Box Utopia, was fatally flawed.

As amply documented in Professor Lofquist’s blog, in the early years of this century (until the rude awakening of 2008), the United States was caught up in a huge Retail Construction Bubble that was simply not sustainable. In fact the Wall Street Journal reported in 2008 that projected retail demand “will justify only 43 percent of the new space delivered this year and last.” At the time I thought that some of Bill’s  “Dr. Doom” predictions were a little gloomy, but history has proved him very prescient.

As economist Herbert Stein said, “Things that cannot go on forever, will stop,” and that is what eventually happened to the Lowes proposal.  Looking back with our 20-20 hindsight, I dare say that was a good thing. I note that the Lowes store that opened in 2008 in Batavia (a much larger market then Geneseo) lasted barely 5 years before closing, so we may have dodged a bullet. Although, perhaps not as vulnerable to Internet competition on their big ticket items, if you search  “Lowes store closing” you will find dozens of other communities that have not been so lucky.
On a personal note, sensing the direction the wind was blowing, I moved my printing business, Genesee Graphics, off Main Street in 2009 to a much lower cost location: my home. Now that I sense a change in the weather I am going to re-establish a retail beachhead. This week I will be moving my copying and printing business to 61 Main Street in Geneseo (the former Frugal Fashionista). Why don’t you stop in to order some copies or printing and talk about the good old days!

My Nabokovian Winter

In my previous post I wrote about my major physical project of the Winter, rebuilding my broken down 62-year-old body. In this column I address what I have been doing to keep my mind active.

Winters are long in Western New York and one can easily develop a bad case of cabin fever, especially if you limit yourself to watching television and browsing the other vast wasteland of the Internet.

Although I have been a voracious reader for most of my life, I confess that in the last 15 years or so, since the rise of the Internet (and especially since getting an iPad), most of my reading has been of the online variety. Although some would say that there are no accidents, it was an unexpected twist of fate that restored my love of books.

While participating in the Lima Farmers Market last fall, I took a quick break to grab a cup of coffee from a local convenience mart. In the store I discovered a local library group had placed a bookshelf of free books.

Not expecting to find much of any interest, I made a quick scan of the titles. Much to my surprise I found two titles by Vladimir Nabokov: “Ada or Ardor” and “King, Queen, Knave.” Although I had read Lolita a number of times and counted it one of my favorite books, I had never tried to read any of his other work, so I picked them both up and left a small donation for the library.

When the farm season wound down I picked up Ada and tried to read it. I had no idea of the difficulty of the task. I later learned that the first few chapters of Ada are considered to be the most difficult that Nabokov has ever written.

It was almost impossible to decipher what was happening in the plot, almost as if the author was deliberately trying to scare off the casual reader. Of course, any work by Nabokov is a House of Mirrors in which nothing is ever quite what it seems, but Ada, published in 1969, the 16th of his 19 novels, may be the most extreme case.

Luckily, before I gave up, I happened upon an online version of the text which was annotated (at least up to page 200 of the 600 page tome.) With the help of the annotation I was able to decipher not only the plot, but the many puns, literary allusions and the many untranslated sections of  French and Russian phrases!

Once you can read it at the level, you will quickly find yourself in a most amusing Fun House with a least one chuckle or an outright howler in almost every paragraph. After finally finishing Ada, I found the much more conventional King, Queen, Knave much easier going.

Written originally in Russian in 1928, and then translated into English and revised by the author in 1968, KQN was Nabokov’s second novel. The plot is easily followed, despite a few surprising twists, but the literary talent is already obvious. I was hooked!

In rapid succession I have devoured the novels “Pale Fire,” ” Pnin” (twice!), “Bend Sinister”and Nabokov’s first novel in English, “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight,” written in 1938, but not published until 1941. Along the way I also read his autobiography “Speak, Memory” that covers his first 40 years before coming to America.

Currently I have his two last completed works “Transparent Works” and “Look at the Harlequins” on order as well as another of his Russian language originals “Despair” from 1934, also translated and revised by the author in 1965.

When I finish all that I can’t wait to re-read Lolita again, the annotated version of course! In addition to reading the books I also keep my computer by my side to look up all the unfamiliar vocabulary words and references.

Upon finishing each book I go online to try to figure out what I have just read. It is gratifying to me to discover that I am not alone in being perplexed. If even the greatest experts have trouble untangling the ambiguity that Nabokov loves so much, who am I to worry about it?

In any case it has been great fun and I highly commend all of these works, or really anything that he wrote, to the serious reader, although I would not recommend that you start with Ada! Pnin, or Pale Fire might be the most easily accessible.

To have such an obsession with the works of one writer is not that unusual for me. Earlier in my life I went through similar infatuations with the works of Henry Miller, Doris Lessing, Carl Jung,  John Updike and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (In fact I took a little break in January to re-set my pallet with Marquez’s “Autumn of the Patriarch.” )

While I still love all these authors I bow down to the new master: Nabokov must surely be the greatest literary stylist of all time!