After 49 faithful years of service to the Blacksburg community, beloved retailer Mish Mish will be closing later this year. High costs of rent and declining health were among the reasons cited for the architectural supply store’s untimely closing. As more shopping is done online, Main Street retailers face a myriad of issues stemming from economic competition to prohibitive regulations to even personal matters that keep them from remaining open.
Behind every Main Street business is a story. Mish Mish got its start in 1970 by a coalition of third-year architecture students with a $300 loan from a professor. The store would grow to serve a school that became one of the nation’s most respected suites of disciplinary design education. Mish Mish would grow beyond servicing architecture students, offering a custom framing shop, as well as servicing local hobbyists and artists.
Other Main Street storefronts, like Harvey’s Barbershop, tell a story of how entrepreneurship can be used as a tool to encourage young people to aspire to greatness — all in the time it takes to get a haircut. The Coop, a spinoff of Blacksburg’s upscale chef-driven concept, Black Hen and Bar Blue, recently opened to much gossipy speculation about its origins on Main Street. The former restaurant Social House, which stood in the historic Bennett-Pugh House on Main Street, was opened by the owner of local eateries Cafe de Bangkok and Next Door Bake Shop, who herself is the daughter of Thai restaurateurs. The owner of the Bennett-Pugh House, a Blacksburg native who moved back to town after pursuing a banking career on the west coast, is now behind The Blacksburg Tavern, which opened after the lease for Social House expired.
In addition to Social House, Main Street has seen a number of businesses close down recently, including Starbucks and Sundee Best. Sundee Best remains active as an online-only retailer, operating in the space where free shipping and other incentives contribute to the decline of brick-and-mortar retail. As evidenced by new businesses along Main Street, Blacksburg entrepreneurs are embracing new ideas in arenas not-before-seen in town, catering to services that cannot be bought online. A hookah lounge, wine bar, convenience store and ice cream/gifts/paper goods store count themselves among new additions that have joined the local commercial fabric.
Blacksburg is fortunate to have passionate entrepreneurs who bring big ideas to this small town, and have until recently benefited from relative commercial affordability to bring their ideas to life. Main Street is ground zero for the battle between traditional retail and online competitors, with new “For Lease” signs as markers of brick-and-mortar retail’s battle wounds.
What is known about the future of the American Main Street:
Small is better
For restaurants and stores alike, operating costs (rent, heating, electricity, staffing, etc.) for smaller structures are less than those of larger structures. Encouraging subdivision of larger structures to accommodate more small businesses will help maximize profits and retail diversity. Especially as growth in delivery services such as Uber Eats, Grubhub and DoorDash continues, reducing overhead costs in restaurants especially will help maintain vitality.
Innovation and entrepreneurship must be encouraged
Following the Mish Mish model, a group of Virginia Tech students sought to close a gap in the market by opening an escape room, Puzzlr, along Main Street. Removing barriers to entry such as high capital costs like rent, government regulations and fees for local entrepreneurs will help create a culture that embraces what it means to buy locally — by bringing new innovative players up to the playing field. A downtown that is full of competitive businesses is much more healthy than one that is largely vacant, as business competition contributes to lower prices, higher quality and innovation.
Third places and walkability are important
Third places are places like coffee shops, parks or bookstores, where people choose to spend their leisure time and meet up with others. Encouraging expansion of third place options will increase downtown’s vitality. Businesses will leverage proximity and walkability to other businesses, and sometimes work together to incentivize patronage.or example, some will offer discounts for patronizing a partnered business. Concentrating third places in walkable areas will increase the amount of time people spend in them, increasing the likelihood that they will patronize nearby businesses.
The internet isn’t going away
There are some things you just can’t do on the internet. Eating, drinking and getting your haircut are three services that will remain downtown. However, restaurants are embracing delivery platforms like Uber Eats, Grubhub and DoorDash and seeing a complete reversal in customer flow. Their kitchens remain busy, though their dining rooms sit empty with a queue of delivery drivers waiting to deliver orders. While innovation in this sector is great, it does hurt servers who rely on dine-in customers’ tips to make up the bulk of their wages. If their take-home pay dips below minimum wage, their employers are required to make up the remainder, which may lead to increased prices at your favorite local eateries.
Leveraging the model of business incubators like the TechPad is a great way for private and public stakeholders to encourage small business growth in Blacksburg. Providing a public-facing space for small businesses to start out will help develop the potential of new entrepreneurs. Starting small decreases barriers to entry and allows daring entrepreneurs to test out ideas without assuming as much risk as it would to start on their own. Bringing innovators and entrepreneurs together will allow them opportunities to learn from each other and collaborate. Business has embraced this idea in the form of coworking spaces like TechPad and WeWork. Cities have embraced this in the concept of food halls, both run by public and private organizations; 7th Street Public Market in Charlotte is a great public example, while Raleigh’s Morgan Street Food Hall is a great private example.
What you can do as a citizen is simple: go downtown and support local businesses. Or better: start your own.