As the economic philosopher Joni Mitchell wrote, “Don’t it always seem to go. That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone….”
But when Mitchell sang Big Yellow Taxi, she didn’t know Seattleites. We did know what we had. But it went anyway.
I was thinking about this when I read my colleague Paul Roberts’ recent story about Bartell Drugs, locally owned for 131 years. I loved the personalized service, ease of getting refills, variety on the shelves. My doctor, who knows my affinity, would joke about sending a prescription to CVS or another chain. Of course, it went to the Bartell at Fifth and Olive.
But this past October, Bartell was bought by Rite Aid, a mammoth national chain with more than 2,400 locations and traded on the New York Stock Exchange (RAD).
Rite Aid promised to keep the distinctive features of Bartell. But changes are already creeping in and, as Roberts reported, customers aren’t happy with them, and the drugstore is bleeding veteran employees.
Another one bites the dust.
I arrived here in 2007 and was bedazzled by the number of local businesses — many densely packed in the central core and with distinctive features I never encountered in the five big cities where I previously lived and worked.
Here are a few:
Fourth Avenue had two — two! — piano stores. Cameras West had a store, not far from a fly-fishing shop; City Kitchens, a cook’s paradise; and the Husky Store.
Ralph’s Grocery and Deli stood at Fourth and Lenora, open until 2 a.m. most days, where I enjoyed breakfast and a mocha in pleasant surroundings chatting with the longtime staff. Overflowing plants hung from bars over the sidewalk. Nearby was Cinerama, lovingly restored by Paul Allen.
All gone (Steinway retains a showroom on Third Avenue).
Third Avenue boasted a French laundry, two-story Bed Bath & Beyond, Bergman Luggage with its neon signs, Xanadu comic books, Macy’s which took an entire block in the stately Bon Marche building, Columbia Sportswear, Payless Shoes, Radio Shack, IGA Kress grocery, Aaron Brothers, T.J. Maxx. No, most of these were not local but hardly any American downtown had such a bounty.
Beyond these, Belltown was rich in older businesses. An appliance repair store on Second Avenue comes to mind. Up on Queen Anne was a stationery store.
Closed and forgotten.
This is a snapshot of over 14 years. And while a few stores came in (Ace Hardware and Roche Bobois furniture on Fourth; Queen Anne still has another office supply shop, hardware store and other little shops), the losses far outnumbered the openings.
No one cause can be blamed.
The Great Recession took out some, such as City Kitchens.
Amazon is no doubt to blame for the destruction of many brick-and-mortar stores. We did get the headquarters with 50,000 well-paid jobs. But it was a painful tradeoff.
Individual business decisions came into play. Ralph’s owner Joe Cohen didn’t have anyone to carry on Ralph’s, which he had owned and run for 31 years. The location is now a fortress-like CVS.
Xanadu, which maintains an online presence, was hurt by the loss of on-street parking and elimination of the free-ride zone on buses.
Chains such as Radio Shack and Payless Shoes sought bankruptcy protection and liquidated stores.
The city’s lax prosecution of shoplifting caused a tipping point in losses for many retailers, including Macy’s, Bed Bath & Beyond, and a Bartell on Third Avenue.
Rising rents and new building owners during the boom caused losses, too. Seattle’s iconic Bernie Utz Hats — I own nine Bernie chapeaus for all seasons and occasions — closed the Third and Union shop it occupied for 84 years in 2018.
The next year we lost First and Pike News, which had once carried 180 newspapers and 2000 magazines. People read fewer publications in physical form. Newspapers closed. And a 40-year-old institution became a memory.
Finally came the pandemic, office closings, and, after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, civil unrest. Peaceful protests were sullied by the looting of downtown stores, including some owned by immigrant people of color.
Along with looting, rising crime made it impossible for retailers such as Columbia, IGA Kress and Bergman Luggage to persuade employees to come downtown.
Nearly 500 street-level businesses have closed since January 2020. This was somewhat offset by 270 street-level businesses opening, according to the Downtown Seattle Association.
Tallying this up is staggering, almost unbearable. I’m sure you have your own personal list, dear reader. Seattle has slid closer to becoming Everywhere Else, America: Sterile, empty, with corporatized leavings.
It’s a testament to the depth of the city’s dynamism that we still have the flagship Nordstrom and other downtown retailing in and near the Pike-Pine corridor. Pike Place Market lives. All over are little green shoots of retail creativity, restoration and revitalization.
Restaurants are coming back. Unique attractions such as the Space Needle, aquarium, Seattle Art Museum, Seattle Great Wheel, Benaroya Hall, Fifth Avenue and other theaters, and sports venues provide destinations to draw people. We’re getting an NHL team.
For all the hating on Seattle by the far right and far left, for all the damage done, it’s an amazing city.
But the loss of our bounty and variety won’t easily be replaced. I hope we still have the capacity to mourn it, for from that might come rebirth.