The seemingly fragile state of traditional retail in the United States and around the world has people wondering what our cities, towns and villages will look like in fifty years. The back and forth between digital sales and brick-and-mortar outlets has everyone guessing, but no one has real answers.
I’ve lived in all three of the “tri-cities” along the Fox River here in Illinois. They are St. Charles, Geneva and Batavia. In all those years I’ve also cycled and run a ton of miles past the storefronts in these communities. Some of the businesses in these buildings have been here for forty or fifty years. Others have come and gone as businesses do.
Even the newspaper building where I once worked is now an office for an eye doctor clinic. I recall the pride and money that went into that building. I also recall climbing up the bare stares inside the half-constructed frame to look south from the second floor. The farm fields were stripped of crops and the land to the south looked brown and flat. I was excited to be moving to that new building and starting a new position as well.
The corridor of land along Randall Road north and south of that building soon filled in with retail stores and big box merchandisers. These were deemed a bonanza in terms of tax dollars for the tri-cities. But there was a downside as well. The smaller downtown retailers saw their sales drop. Empty storefronts began to appear. Peope panicked a little.
Then came the Internet, and the newspaper(s) where I worked for fifteen years lost revenue as entire industries migrated to the Internet. First the Employment revenue left. Then Real Estate too. Much of the Automotive followed. The one relatively solid category that remained has been obituaries. Beyond that, newspapers have their loyal customers that depend on print. Thus they survive.
That seems symbolic in so many ways. Is it only the dead or dying that want to advertise in a vehicle that kills trees for a living. That said, I remain a huge fan of newspapers. I still subscribe to our regional publications. I also work with print journalists on news stories and public relations programs in my current communications job. Newspapers may be depleted in numbers and size, but the Fourth Estate is critical to our society’s honesty and balance. For that reason, I hope they never leave. We need credible institutions to stand up to the daily menu of lies and distortions of truth that infest the commerce of politics while claiming “fake news” all the while.
Journalism is the most critical form of commerce on earth. It some form it drives even scripture and our Constitution.
So even if “newspapers” do finally cease to exist in the print editions, which I do not think will happen, the value they bring to this world is tangible. I’ve watched the content of the Chicago Tribune that I used to deliver door-to-door swing toward far more balanced reporting than it did forty years ago when its owners and editors were staunchly Republican. Even my now-favorite columnist Steve Chapman, a devout Libertarian for decades, has evolved in his thinking and consideration of what constitutes practical truth.
So we can’t always see into the future or predict where things will go. But we also can’t always assume the worst for society either. The businesses that once occupied those empty storefronts may have run their course, but nature and business both abhor a vacuum. Those digital stores seem to realize that sooner or later need to reach people, in person. We’re even realizing the limits of social media to connect people. That’s why there are still group runs and rides and swims among us triathletes. Data and apps only go so far. They are storefronts of a sort, but we need to fill them with human relationships too.
We’re all creatures of habit in the end. Like the edge-seeking mouse that walks close to the wall in order to feel secure, our instincts push us around the block. We cover some of the same running and riding routes even though we could go anywhere we like. Even when swimming in open water, we appreciate how the cones guide us.
I think of all that time passing by those storefronts during workouts… and all the money spent buying things I’ve liked or needed over the years. I think of all those footsteps and thoughts that carried me up and down those streets and sidewalks. I try to assess what has been learned along the way. I remember the relationships with some of those business owners, and even working within some of those walls. Talking. Selling. Being part of it all.
It makes me realize an empty storefront is never as empty as it seems. It only looks that way because we can’t imagine what comes next.
But I’m proud of these towns along the Fox River because each has taken on the challenge of relevancy in different ways. Rather than remain stuck in the literalism of what once was, they have built or are planning to build new foundations for the future. One can respect the past and relish the old days without getting stuck there.
Good advice for all of us.