Small Local Businesses on the Ropes
When Chase Hardware announced it was closing up shop after 61 years on North Fourth Street in Los Ranchos, many North Valley people felt like they were losing a tried and true old friend. Chase was what I’d call the last New Mexican hardware store in Albuquerque. It was home-owned and home-grown over the years, and its operating philosophy was based on New Mexican manners. When a customer walked in the front door of Chase’s hardware one of its cadre of polite, knowledgeable, and friendly people would ask “how can I help you?” or “what do you need?” I’d never go anywhere else, if I could help it. I’d always find what I needed. And I always felt like I was dealing with friends.
But now we’re faced with yet another nail in the coffin of our local culture. As Chase goes, so have gone many other local businesses. The reasons are unique to each. But the effect is the same. Proprietors rooted in our community by culture and history are being replaced by anonymous big businesses. This homogenization of our towns and cities is driven by national chains with their “monopolistic culture” which really don’t care about where they are or who their customers are. Local businesses, of course, survive mostly because they do care. They are a part of the fabric of local life. They are not mere merchandizing machines. They can’t survive that way. Customer service, and tailoring their products to what their customers want and need is the bedrock of their success, not “low prices” which really often aren’t that much lower at all.
I am, I have to admit, offended and angered by big national companies that come to Albuquerque and the rest of New Mexico and displace local businesses, especially when they’ve been given incentives and various tax breaks and loopholes as lures. As a small, local business person myself, I’m not aware of similar “deals” from state government for me.
Chase Hardware, apparently, has had a hard time since the recession of 2008, which New Mexico still hasn’t recovered from. But it didn’t help that their major competition was no longer other local hardware stores but huge national chains like Home Depot and Lowes Home Improvement.
Big companies wiped out local stationary stores too. General Office Supply, my favorite one downtown in the l980s, and many others were driven out of business by Staples, Office Depot, and Office Max. And now Staples is swallowing up its remaining big box competition and becoming the only game in town, buying up Office Depot after it had bought up Office Max. I’m so grateful for Pen and Pad in Hoffmantown and Penny Smith’s in Dietz Farm Plaza, the last of the local specialized stationers.
The same is true for bookstores. The university area used to have at least five or six local bookstores, some of which were world class. They were driven out of business by the University Bookstore, which now sells very few books, and by the big chains: Borders, Barnes and Noble and, of course, by Amazon. Barnes and Noble is now the monopoly, Borders being long since defeated, and wonderful local news outlets like Newsland across from UNM being killed by national pressures and the internet. Thank heavens for Bookworks in the North Valley, which is not just a survivor, but rivals the great local and independent bookshops still left in the country.
Many old timers, like myself, don’t really like to leave the North or South Valleys and the University Heights to shop because we don’t want to be depressed by the ugly, suburban sprawl town that the newer parts of Albuquerque have become. This big box, strip mall Albuquerque is depressing because it’s homogenized. It has no local character. And we choose not to do business in such places when in the valley our real New Mexico Albuquerque still exists.
What is actually happening here? Is it as simple as it looks? I think it is. Basically, big out of state retail companies get deals and incentive packages to move here and, without saying so, treat locally owned businesses as the competition, which they destroy and devour every chance they get. It’s what sharks and monopolies do.
Small manufacturers in New Mexico have it better. They get some incentives that are not available to local retail, which must go it alone while their big competitors are coddled with corporate tax breaks the governor touts as good for business—but whose business? Certainly not the small and the local.
And New Mexico’s burdensome regressive tax structure of high sales/gross receipts tax and ever escalating property taxes coupled with low corporate income taxes—not to mention the Chamber of Commerce’s fight against raising the minimum wage—seems almost designed to drive people of moderate or low incomes away from small local business and into the maws of big box stores which can underprice their competition by virtue of volume and discounts alone.
The loss of Chase Hardware is such a blow to the North Valley not only because a trusted local merchant is no more, but because we will now be forced to shop at national chain stores which think of us not as customers, but as credit cards and drops in the statistical bucket of their fabulous profits that are often subsidized by state government. So local initiative and hard work is cast aside for “jobs” that pay less than local work does, and for profits that go out of state, replacing money generated here that stayed here.
I’m not smart enough to understand why local politicians work so hard to undermine local businesses, making them meat for national and international sharks. But there’s no doubt that our leadership community does just that, over and over, begging low paying monopolies to come to our state and underpay our people and in the process wreck and replace the existing, locally grown economy. Perhaps that’s what politicians do when most of their campaign money comes from the front organizations of big corporate interests.
Architecture: Los Poblanos v. Franchise Albuquerque
It goes almost without saying that architecture is to a city as geology is to a landscape. The visible parts of cities are made largely of buildings and the connections between them. Landscapes are made from geological processes that are millions, if not, billions of years old.
If government permits companies to tear off mountain tops or put oil derricks around natural or historic wonders, the landscape will be scarred and its cultural value lost. If cities allow companies to install franchise architecture instead of helping them to adapt to local custom and conditions, cities run the risk of destroying their uniqueness and their cultural value too.
A big city doesn’t need draconian design codes to enforce a particular look as smaller towns like Santa Fe have done with considerable success. A big city gets big by accommodating the contemporary world of commerce. But it can, if it chooses to, require contemporary, colonizing businesses to comply with the building and design customs required by its climate and its history, without getting into the measurement of window spaces and doors.
This is particularly true of a place like Albuquerque. It’s long harbored an intense interest in architecture, local, national and international. It still has fine examples of contemporary, but traditional, New Mexican buildings and, before urban renewal knocked the blocks out from under the historic preservation movement, was a living museum of architecture from the l880s to the l950s. Even now it has one of the great examples of how to blend traditional and modern forms in the main campus of the University of New Mexico. UNM is both a regional style campus and a modernist campus. It shows what fine imaginations can do.
Franchise architecture, of course, is not about imagination. It’s about architecture as commercial graffiti. It does what’s easy, not what’s good for the city that it and its peers work to colonize. One can see the spectrum of architectural possibilities in our town by contrasting Coronado Center, Albuquerque Uptown, and Los Poblanos Inn. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare them. But there is a point to be made.
People like me don’t like to shop on the main drags of Albuquerque. Most shopping streets in our city are architecturally slums of commerce, sometimes very successful slums, and even nicely landscaped slums. A place like Coronado Center, one of the hubs of the Northeast Heights, could be described as a San Fernando Valley mall anchored by a pseudo rock Tuscan bookstore, with a Frisbee-like roof on one of its turrets, that appears to be selling almost everything but meaningful books. Coronado belongs to an invasive species of building and design that has “graced” Albuquerque in much the same way as kudzu defaces the American South. But at least kudzu has the virtue of being green. Coronado is a generic American mall. It would be interesting, perhaps, if it had been brought here as a historical example of the form. But it just arrived and settled here like alien spoor and has spread over the rest of the city. In fact, when it opened in l965 its architectural form created the faceless context of the whole area as well as being a magnet drawing most of the retail out of downtown.
Uptown Albuquerque, a large open air, ersatz shopping village, has staked out a middle ground, but not through any virtue of the city’s self-esteem in directing commercial design. It could be said that Uptown’s masonry pays homage to Pre-Puebloan stone architecture in the Chaco Province and beyond. But that’s going too far, given its weird space-age turrets and circular neon roof forms. Still, it is a vaguely congenial place if it would only turn off its outside Muzak, the maddening elevator music issuing from lamp posts, which debases the whole enterprise. The stone (real or fake) is welcome, but there is still a hint of the Tuscan, which belongs in Tuscany not in New Mexico.
Los Poblanos Inn is an entirely different story. It was designed at a time when New Mexico architecture was interested in New Mexico and its history.
To tour the traditional Albuquerque part of our town, one could go from Los Poblanos along Rio Grande Boulevard to Central Avenue, move west through Atrisco and back into the Country Club, then circle around Old Town and our marvelous museum row. Then one continues east on Central through downtown, and up to University Heights and continues on Central through Nob Hill. There’s much in the South Valley to be seen, including the National Hispanic Cultural Center. North Forth Street through Los Ranchos gives a sense of the North Valley, especially if you turn west on Ranchitos and connect with Guadalupe trail south to Los Chavez.
Los Poblanos Inn and La Quinta Cultural Center close by on Rio Grande set the tone. I can’t think of any place that feels more like the New Mexico to which I first came in the late l950s. The main buildings were originally designed by John Gaw Meem, who created the major Pueblo/Spanish style buildings of the UNM regional campus from the l930s to the l950s. Los Poblanos and La Quinta combine Meem’s sensitivity to indigenous and Hispanic architecture with his understanding of the influence of Greek Revival style forms and how they mirror modernist forms. With its lush gardens, its organic farm, its avenues of trees, and its deep set back from Rio Grande, Los Pobanos Inn has more to tell us, I think, about what kind of city we might have been than even UNM’s main campus does. Would it have been impossible for us to grow to more than 550,000 people if we had set landscaping and architectural guidelines to which the commercial world would have had to conform, guidelines that kept Albuquerque a New Mexican place even to its outer fringes, guidelines and zoning codes that respected our climate, our land forms, and our history, even in minimally common sense ways, like not building streets in arroyos? We tried to do this in the l970s. The parking lot forest and street tree ordinances went a good way to help. But we stalled and became politically polarized and could never reach a consensus. So our engineering and commercial graffiti “aesthetic” has prevailed up to now. But with climate change, other changes are possible too. As always, the future is wide open.
Why We Love New Mexico: The Backward Road
New Mexico is a visual banquet. You can travel over the state time and time again, over terrain you know is familiar but that never quite looks the same. We love it here because in its vastness and variety we find a comforting familiarity and an invigorating sense of adventure that never leaves. How many times have we driven up into the Jemez—probably hundreds of times in over 50 years—and its red cliffs and forests are never tiring, always changing and yet known so well and so deeply that our history with that landscape is always with us too.
New Mexico is a place that teaches us that the road always looks different when you drive the other way. That’s the secret of the backward road. And our light here is so varied and potent that whole landscapes continually transform themselves with every hour and with every cloud.
Think of New Mexico’s national parks and monuments—Aztec Ruins near Bloomfield, Bandelier in the Jemez, Capulin Volcano between Clayton and Raton, Carlsbad Caverns, Chaco Canyon, El Camino Real Historic Trail, El Malpais outside of Grants, El Morro near Zuni, Fort Union near Springer, Gila Cliff Dwellings near Silver City, Northern Rio Grande National Heritage near Espanola, the Old Spanish Historic Trail from Santa Fe to Los Angeles, Pecos National Historic Park between Las Vegas and Santa Fe, Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque, the Salinas Pueblo Missions near Mountainair, The Santa Fe Trail, and White Sands National Monument. Each one of these could be visited dozens of times and would never be exactly the same. You’d learn new things every time went to any of them. The roads would always be different, yet always welcoming. You just can’t exhaust their uniqueness and the thrill of seeing them again and again, almost as if for the first time.
As many adventures as I’ve had traveling to Chaco Canyon, either from the old Nageezi entrance or the new way which gives one a view of the stargazers’ La Fajada Butte from at least fifteen miles away, nothing is ever the same and, of course, always, even eternally, the same. Each 24 hours in Chaco Canyon, from sunrise to sunrise, is a metaphor for the birth of light in the world. Nothing prepares one for the infinite variety of photons that travel through the canyon, the shadows, the immense night skies, the mind-altering heat and cold, the storms and lighting and unforgiving winds. Each time is a birth experience for your evolving self. Chaco is just that way. Visiting it one time, or a hundred times, is just never enough.
That’s why once you root yourself in New Mexico you can stay for the rest of your life, never bored, never satiated, always surprised, always amazed, always wanting more and more. And as long as the earth keeps spinning and the sun keeps shining it will always be here waiting to humble us and delight us with its serene distances and its mysterious, and surely sacred, beauty.