The Internet said something beautiful to me the other day.
It wasn’t a brash statement like what I’d imagine the all-powerful, world-wide phenomenon to come up with. No. It was a quiet thing.
It said: “Here we are. Where are you?”
The impulse to contribute to the billions upon billions of images and words online, when you sit down at the computer, is magnetic. All of us, we’re sucked up against that screen eagerly clicking away, being drawn ever-deeper into the bowels of the beast, leaving trails of comments and images along the way, in the hope that people find us and the Internet recognises us.
Globalisation was meant to cause individuals to feel disconnected and disillusioned but the Internet has had the reverse effect. It wants to know all about our place and what we’re doing there.
And that’s the beautiful thing. Where we come from and what we’re doing there.
It might be weird to suggest that the Internet is about encouraging interaction with the physical world, even tenuous. But the hungry beast wants for more, always, and the true gold on the Internet now is always parochial and always, always ridiculously creative.
But what if where you live seems kinda dull?
Trust me, it’s not.
In 1961 an unassuming woman in Greenwich Village, New York City, wrote a book about her neighbourhood, about corner-stores and barber shops, about eight-storey walk-up flats and greengrocers. It was about the city and what made it great. Jane Jacobs’ The Life and Death of Great American Cities celebrated what nearly everyone else at the time was calling slums and eyesores: the close-knit urban neighbourhoods of NYC that were under threat of demolition to make way for a highway across lower Manhattan. Jacobs’ attention to the seemingly small things that make a city work well for its residents – the way people on the street deter crime; how a mix of shops and housing make a neighbourhood both convenient and lively, were revealing but also… pretty obvious.
Independent retail and small business are literally on the ground floor when it comes to building a city; the city you want. The characters who run these shops, the grumpy comic book guy, the rock-star hairdressers, the musical encyclopaedia girl, and their love/contempt for you and/or their little shop, paint the picture of what is different, what is unique and what is to celebrate about here.
Big box stores such as Borders, Just Jeans, JB Hi Fi and Harvey Norman, while certainly employing local people, say nothing about your city. A franchised cup of coffee, while perhaps slickly branded and predictably decent, is nothing to celebrate, nothing to email your contacts in Tokyo about or update your blog with.
Jacob von der Lippe makes six violins a year on a little street in Oslo, Norway. Thereses gate is situated in Bislett between the east and west of the capital and it is one of the most beautiful and eclectic streets in Europe. On this strip alone there is a vintage furniture store, an antiquarian book shop, a shop specialising in Norwegian design, a fashion designer, a florist, a hairdresser, a clockmaker and of course, beautifully decorated cafes and bars with gorgeous food and drink. However, what defines Thereses gate as a success and something to celebrate is that it’s local.
“Most of the people shopping in Thereses gate are locals,” Jacob says in our conversation via email, “I recognise many of the people who are passing by my window each day.”
Just by choosing to shop there and supporting good concepts and beautiful stores, they are, in-turn, creating their immediate environment and have a degree of control over the quality and character of the neighbourhood they live in. It’s the equivalent of a “thumbs up” on Facebook but a whole lot more fucking meaningful!
And what the locals like is important, because it’s certainly not all success stories on Thereses gate. “I’ve seen many small shops open and close within a year,” admits Jacob. Location isn’t enough: if the concept of the shop is poor, it will fail. Jacob believes unsuccessful stores don’t have a realistic understanding or respect for their customers, “It’s quite hard to sell a product that you can find elsewhere much cheaper,” he writes. “For example – clothes. To succeed, you have to find clothes that are really ‘special’ in order to give the clients that ‘little small extra’.”
And it’s precisely this little small extra that is the reward for shopping at good independent stores. It is the little small extra which gives your city character, the off-hand and perhaps slightly inappropriate banter with your feisty barista or the amazing lesson on Japanese selvage you get from your denim sensei. Just the idea that you can walk through the doors of your favourite bar and the bartender be already shaking your favourite drink is probably a cause for concern but beautiful nonetheless.
Marcus Barber is a Futurist. He advises Federal departments, state government and local departments, NGOs, as well as international companies like General Motors and Fosters on their relevant futures by identifying the signals of change that emerge from both close to home, and around the world. Phew.
Marcus knows what drives a city and he believes the relationship between small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and a city is integral. Where a person decides to shop, and how they spend their money, has a huge effect on the development and expansion of a city.
“It’s very much a case of people thinking, ‘I want to help this business along’ and then really encourage themselves to go there regularly or consistently bring their friends along. That little $2 or $3 spend here and there certainly adds up.”
It’s not enough to like something in real life. In real life you have to buy their products or else they’ll simply close.
But Marcus is optimistic.
“People shop locally. In times of an economic downturn,
people get smarter about where they shop and what they choose to support.”
While the service industry such as building, painting and plumbing gets a boost (thanks K. Rudd) Marcus believes this attitude also spills over into retail where, he says, “people start to think, ‘maybe I should shop with the local bloke, who I get to know, rather than the big corporate entity.’”
And it’s precisely this conservative attitude that needs to be fostered beyond the downturn and into times of prosperity.
Supporting small business means you’re supporting a person. A person who will invest in renovating their store, cleaning their sidewalk, painting their storefront, cleaning off tags, commissioning artists to paint their store, hiring graphic designers to create a new brand identity and advertising campaign for their business to run in a free magazine… ahem. It’s organic. A person is never, ever going to ask, “Did you say size 8? If this is correct, please say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’…”
Indeed the choice is easy but perhaps I’ve painted too rosy a picture here. Because it has to be outed: we Australians have an inherent mistrust for anything local. And I’m not only talking about the type of story where a local shop starts stocking brands a customer thought was “cool” only when they had to travel interstate to get them (p.s. that person’s a dickhead and needs to vacate the city immediately). No. Our collective cultural cringe extends even to our manufacturing sector.
Tom Black’s company, Velocity, has been building bicycle components for 20-odd years. The first product they ever manufactured was a bottle cage in 1988, when he was working out of a shed on a 40-acre property north of Brisbane. Within a few years they began making rims and now, rims are 99 per cent of what they do.
Velocity’s wheels are world-renowned, the B43s are made from aluminium mined in Queensland, extruded, then hand rolled and anodized in Brisbane. The triple-walled rim is said to be bomb proof, nuke proof, hence the name, and they’re in demand across the globe. Despite this, Australia is an uphill battle.
“If you want to do something in Australia it’s got to be twice as good, to be considered half as good,” Tom says resignedly, “if the quality wasn’t there, we wouldn’t be selling anything.”
Oh but they are quality and they are indeed selling.
The week before chatting with me on the phone from Brisbane, Tom had sent off a 40 foot shipping container full of rims to their, relatively new, 16,000 square-foot warehouse in West Michigan U.S.A. “I can’t remember the exact number,” Tom says, as I imagine him crossing off zeros, “but it was well in excess of 8,000 rims and that was the second one of those in six weeks.”
Currently, Velocity ships 80 per cent of their rims to the U.S. and while he admits the market is much bigger there, he also feels Velocity is far better accepted in the U.S. than Australia. “In the U.S., and we’re doing really well in Europe now as well, the “Aussie Made” really seems to be a selling feature. Forget what the product is. Whereas in Australia it’s the opposite, if it’s not imported it mustn’t be any good.”
But success for Velocity in Australia doesn’t necessarily mean massive growth instantly; perseverance, from the outset, has been the only attitude Tom’s allowed himself in 20 years of building wheels. For him, the fact that Velocity isn’t just importing something and branding it, but that they employ 20 people in Brisbane to make the product, is a source of pride. But, “it’s more than that though,” he continues, “it’s just a feeling that this is the right thing to do.”
Investing in his city, employing locals and managing every step of the manufacturing process, has delivered Tom a unique advantage in what is widely recognised as a booming industry. Velocity, albeit not entirely appreciated in Australia, is a massive success story, a dividend earned from having stayed put in Brisbane, doing what they could, with what they had.
We’re often made to feel that a dollar doesn’t make a difference. But cities work like ecosystems. Where we choose to spend a dollar does, in actual fact, make a massive difference. Each coin casts a vote that will determine the success or failure of a little part of your city because independent shops feed and grow from the ground up, not top down.
I would have enjoyed interviewing Jane Jacobs but sadly, she died in 2006 at the age of 89. In one of her last interviews, in 2003 with Reason Magazine’s Bill Steigerwald, Jacobs again argued that healthy cities are organic, messy, spontaneous and serendipitous.
Her resounding statement about what a city should be like? “It should be like itself. People in Portland love Portland. That’s the most important thing. Every city has differences, from its history, from its site, and so on. These are important. One of the most dismal things is when you go to a city and it’s like 12 others you’ve seen. That’s not interesting, and it’s not really truthful.”
Here we are: hundreds of countries, ethnicities and religions, all communicating in the one medium, feasibly simultaneously, as we go about a massive social re-organisation, selecting new clans, based on common-interest, community and cliques, rather than history, proximity or ignorance.
But where are you?
Art by DAN WITHEY