My daughter, sister and I recently drove to the Chicago suburbs in search of Asian stationery. Our quest led us to a string of immense grocery stores offering bulk bins of frozen fish balls, ginormous jackfruit, and corner displays with hundreds of kimchi jars. Surrounding the food aisles were a series of smaller independent retail stalls, typically run by a single individual selling face masks, massage chairs, Korean books, stuffed animals and the aforementioned paper goods. From what I can tell, these were immigrant-owned “lifestyle” businesses, meaning the people just like to show up every day and make enough to make ends meet. The arrangement was such a novel concept that I felt like I was in a foreign country rather than a neighboring state.
On the drive home, I couldn’t help but think of all the retail vacancies I see in Madison — on State Street, in Westgate or West Towne Mall, or the myriad of mixed-use buildings with offices and apartments above. I find it hard to believe than an empty space is preferred to a business started by an immigrant, refugee or minority trying to gain a foothold into the middle class. At our shop, if something sits on the shelf too long, we mark it down for Maxwell Street Days. Imagine a generous, community-minded landlord offering a first-time entrepreneur the chance to try out their business and not have to struggle with rent for the first six months. Why not partner with Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation or the Black and Latino Chambers of Commerce to foster new businesses and solve part of the problem of inequality in our city? Fellow business owners would share in the new energy and spending these shops would bring to the city.
A former Kmart stayed vacant for 14 years before the city of Dallas changed the zoning codes and broke up the 75,000 square-foot space into 125 stalls, renting at $500 to $4,000 per month. The newly transformed mercado boasts first-time immigrant businesses and a lively social scene with mariachi bands and a performance stage. Some cavernous spaces in Madison have stayed vacant for years while property owners await a chain store with deep pocketed-investors; if they were broken up into smaller retail units, we could boost the city’s business-friendly bona fides by offering everyone from recent immigrants to mid-career changers an opportunity to realize a retail or service dream. Some vacant spaces make more sense as housing, health care or recreation, but plenty of smaller spaces would lend themselves to a starter store, or gallery of individual stalls.
I spotted another model on a recent trip to New Zealand, where a four-story building was going up in Lyttelton, just outside of Christchurch. An architect and activist had bought the land and planned a mixed-use project expressly for collective ownership. Her mission is “property development with a soul.” Anyone in the community could buy a share (for $100 New Zealand dollars, or $75 U.S. dollars) and invest in what the port town needed and wanted — in this case, apartments, co-working spaces, a meeting room, courtyard, rooftop garden and hot pools. It’s not socialism, but “Compassionate Capitalism — enabling many people to make a little, instead of a few people making a lot.” In Madison, we hear a lot about worker-owned cooperatives, but little about cooperative-owned buildings. Both would lift members of the community and guarantee the types of businesses our city desires.
Madison has lowered the barrier for those interested in the food scene by offering workshops and classes, commercial kitchen space and well-regulated licenses for food carts, which often lead to owners opening a brick and mortar restaurant. While Madison hosts artists and crafters at the Saturday farmers’ market and the occasional craft fair, our city lacks the classes and mentoring for first-time shop owners. Yes, we’ve all heard about the Amazon-caused retail apocalypse, but if you dig a little deeper, you find business owners who were nearing retirement, or national chains shut down by investors who had saddled the company with insurmountable debt. Last September, we moved our shop down the block and tripled the size of our space. We would not have done it if we believed that retail was dying. The immediate jump in sales required an immediate jump in buying and staffing, confirming we had made the right decision. Similarly, several of our peers have either opened a second location or expanded in recent months to meet the demands of visitors and residents.
Personally, the past 11 years as a business owner have been incredibly rewarding. Helping someone find the perfect teacher gift or pet sympathy card far outweighs the occasional sleepless night worrying about the credit card bill. Working six days a week isn’t exactly family-friendly, but my newborn daughter could nap and nurse at our newly opened shop; as a middle-schooler, she asks to come downtown and help us set up window displays, restock the sticker wall, or draw a sign for the new Sqwishland dispenser. At night I can draw and paint new designs for the shop, continuing to foster my own creativity while sharing it with customers.
I would hope that anyone with a good idea could pursue it here in town and find a smart, giving and growing community.
Sachi Komai and her sister own Anthology, a local gift shop in downtown Madison.
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