Mall in the Family

While other downtown malls died, Boulder’s was a real success story. But then came the chains and other Block-busters.

Something, perhaps, like the Community Vitality Act?

While Mayor Toor says he can neither oppose nor endorse the CVA until it's been analyzed further, he's interested in exploring any tools available to "support the local character of our business districts." Although he, too, is concerned about the impact of chains, "some people think about it very fatalistically," he says. Meanwhile, the Boulder Independent Business Association has "done a valuable service by raising the issue," enabling citizens as well as councilmembers to discuss it at a meeting this week.

According to Jeff Milchen, the BIBA used the term "formula business" in its proposal for reasons of both clarity and legality. The act would not prevent an out-of-state corporation from opening a business in Boulder, but it would preclude that corporation from standardizing "product names, layout, decor, menus, uniforms or other...features which cause (the business) to be substantially similar to three or more other businesses." And the Crossroads area would be exempted from CVA stipulations, although chains there still would have to go through a special review if their proposed outlets were over a certain size.

Precious jewels: Mary and Naim Doost are closing their Gem and Jewelry Source.
Precious jewels: Mary and Naim Doost are closing their Gem and Jewelry Source.
Precious jewels: Mary and Naim Doost are closing their Gem and Jewelry Source.
James Bludworth
Precious jewels: Mary and Naim Doost are closing their Gem and Jewelry Source.

As things stand now in Boulder, "it's a grossly uneven playing field," Milchen says. "If we had true competition, the chains would have gone bankrupt years ago. They operate in a completely different world than a brick-and-mortar business, a global financial casino...As long as they can continue to attract speculative investment from folks betting they will eventually drive out the competition and have an oligopoly, they can keep losing indefinitely."

In fact, on a national scale, Barnes & Noble and Borders are highly profitable, in part because many of the stores are entertainment centers selling dozens of items besides books. Given the volume of merchandise they deal in, they enjoy economies of scale and can make deals with publishers unavailable to independents. In many areas, they control the market, having long ago driven small local bookshops out of business.

"There are many people moving to Boulder from all around the country," says Lisa Gesner, who recently left her job as promotions manager for the Boulder Book Store. "When they see a place that has name recognition, that's the place they're going to go. Later, they may decide to go somewhere more unique and individual. They're concerned with saving money and convenience. It's the longtime Boulderites who know why the Boulder Book Store is so vital to the community."

Supporting local merchants makes sense economically, Milchen says, as they're more apt than chains to use local services and keep their profits in the community. "We don't have to be victims," he concludes. "Communities can take action to save their character."

Although the CVA would be more sweeping, similar policies have been adopted in other parts of the country, including Santa Cruz, California. But Boulder must fully consider the act's ramifications, warns City Manager Ron Secrist. Although he likes the idea of informing consumers about "independent businesses and their relationship with the community," he adds that "we need to be very, very careful about having governmental intervention into market forces."

Already the CVA faces stiff resistance. The Camerahas editorialized against it; critics have decried it as protectionism and restraint of trade.

"It is those things," Bolduc says calmly. "We protect things all the time that we think are important, from our family to a redwood forest, from garden plants to endangered species. There are all kinds of trade barriers all over the world."

Bolduc's first Boulder shop, Back Country Bookstore, opened on Pearl Street in 1973 -- four years before the mall was created. He remembers a pet store, a bakery, boardinghouses in the area. "A connection with the past is very important for feeling everything's okay," he says. "Without that, you're floating out there. If we can make the ordinance happen, it will force property owners to relate to the community in an integrated way. Without chains, the rents can't keep ratcheting up 20 to 25 percent every year. The owners will have to work with local people, local entrepreneurs."

Like all of the proposed renovations to the mall, the act is the subject of heated debate. But this is Boulder, after all, where such debate is a time-honored tradition. "That's what it's all about," says Bolduc, "to be able to have face-to-face communication within a community.

"Everything gets sacrificed to the vision of more and more and more -- resources, the indigenous people, the environment," he adds. "What we're fighting is the force that puts money at the center of all relationships."

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