By Brian Lampkin
With the help of many people, I opened Scuppernong Books on South Elm Street in downtown Greensboro just about one year ago. The community response has been heartening, to say the least. One thing I never expected was gratitude — so many people have said to us, “Thank you for taking this risk” or “Thank you for believing in downtown!”
And I do believe in downtown. I believe in the life and culture that cities provide, but I also believe that each city must bring its own unique life and culture. Something special must differentiate downtown Greensboro from downtown Durham or Asheville or Charlotte. What makes our South Elm unlike Winston-Salem’s Fourth Street or Wilmington’s Front Street?
We all know that South Elm and all of downtown is in the midst of a major resurgence — more than $300 million in new investments by recent estimates. But this rebirth has not been magical nor has it been overnight. Several individuals took a risk much greater than Scuppernong’s and invested in downtown before there was any good reason to do so. Without the early bravery of Liberty Oak, McCoul’s, Natty Greene’s, the Green Bean, Triad Stage and Design Archives (of course, there are others, and I apologize to those I’m leaving out) there would be no atmosphere for an independent bookstore to help breathe life into.
I am grateful to those early independent and local businesses. There are no places like them anywhere else in North Carolina — or on planet Earth. They are idiosyncratic, sometimes odd, and at all times uniquely Greensboro. As downtown continues to redevelop, it’s good to remember there would be no city life without these intensely local and small businesses.
I’ve witnessed several cities go through the growing pains of “sudden” rebirth. The challenge, it seems to me, is to protect our city from the predatory reach of the big-box store or the name brand. What do we want in a downtown? Do we want national chains that turn cities into carbon copies of each other, or are we charmed and warmed by a city that is remarkably unlike any other?
In Seattle, local merchants and activists fought hard to protect the Pike Place Market from the bulldozer and the urban plan. Seattle is unimaginable without the archaic institution of a farmers market and also unlivable without it, but it had to be protected from developers with bigger dreams and bigger pockets.
Statistics are often cited about the percentage of dollars spent that stay in a community when local businesses are supported instead of national ones. A study in Austin, Texas, found that $100 spent at a local bookstore produced $45 worth of local economic activity, and $100 at the chain store brought back only $13. I know this has been an effective argument because Wal-Mart has tried to co-opt the “Buy Local” movement by creating bumper stickers, or so I remember seeing, with this oxymoron: “Support Your Community: Shop at Your Local Wal-Mart.”
Economic vitality matters; we need viable and vibrant businesses. But equally we need a city that looks and feels like home. I suppose a Starbucks instead of a Green Bean or a Barnes & Noble instead of a Scuppernong would look pretty good to some people. Maybe there are even people out there who would prefer a Taco Bell to Crafted: The Art of the Taco. You never know. But the people who had a vision, who invested the hours and the years, did not land in downtown Greensboro because they had grandiose dollar signs in their eyes. They bring a love of what they do and, to varying degrees, of course, a love of their city.
Scuppernong Books would not be here without the earlier efforts of these local businesses. Together we create a downtown that is alive and interesting.
I suspect that more people than not want our downtown to continue to grow in idiosyncratic and interesting ways. Not all growth is good growth, so as downtown begins to bulge at the seams, I hope we will pay close attention to what brings a healthy quality of life to a city. And to continue to support the small and local businesses that made this newly vibrant downtown possible.
Brian Lampkin is the owner of Scuppernong Books.