*This article originally appeared in RVA Mag #36, on the streets now at all your favorite spots.
We live in a convenience-based society. Between Amazon Prime shipping various household needs straight to our doors, and food apps like DoorDash and UberEats keeping us well-fed without leaving the couch, it’s become more convenient than ever to satisfy all our needs online. As city dwellers, we want life to be easier, cheaper, and more convenient — and multinational corporations have become very skilled in fulfilling those desires.
But part of what makes Richmond so special to its natives, and to the consistent string of expats who flock to our streets, is the plethora of unique local businesses thriving in the city’s locally-oriented business districts. There is something for almost everyone here: from costume supplies at Premiere Costumes to used video games at Bits and Pixels, and comic books at Velocity Comics. Richmond’s merchants know how to do local business right; more importantly, the city’s residents do what they can to keep them alive. If Amazon is Goliath, neighborhoods like Carytown are our David.
Despite the looming outsourced shadow of big-box giants, local business tends to do pretty well in the city. While there is no such thing as an average day for any small business owner, there are still more ups than downs to owning an independent business, having no corporate man in the sky telling you what you can and can’t do with your store.
“There is no wrong way of doing things,” said Vinyl Conflict owner Bobby Egger. “If you get a wild idea that makes no sense to anyone but you, you can just go ahead and do it. I’ve come up with some of my best [and some of] my worst ideas that way.”
“We are controlled locally, so we can order the books that we want,” said Chop Suey Books owner Ward Tefft. “We can plan events and do things that are not middle-of-the-road. We take stands on things for social justice, which we’re happy to have the opportunity to do, and not [try to] please everybody, which corporate does. We don’t try to offend, but we don’t shy away from offending someone who doesn’t support social justice issues.”
World Of Mirth owner Thea Brown also appreciates the opportunity to more-readily support her community. Last, year the store hosted a donation drive to gather toilet paper for Richmond Public Schools. During the government shutdown earlier this year, World of Mirth worked to help furloughed federal employees give gifts to their children with January and February birthdays.
Sometimes reasons for local businesses to be cheerful come from unlikely places. One of those came for World Of Mirth when international toy giant Toys R Us closed all of its U.S. stores — this provided a small, but welcome, bump in new customers.
“At first, we had an influx of customers that thought Toys R Us was the only toy store,” said Brown. “That was kind of interesting. [Customers also noticed] ‘Wow, you’re really nice here!’ Well, of course — we want you to come back.”
Books and music have been tricky businesses since the advent of the internet, with electronic versions of both becoming more accessible to consumers with each passing year. Even for customers who are loyal to physical media, corporate giants like Barnes and Noble can offer discounts that make it hard for local stores to compete. Nonetheless, Vinyl Conflict’s Egger sees the internet as good for business.
“We’re able to use the idea of social media to drive customers into our store,” said Egger. “When we get new product, people are able to see on the internet what we have before they come in the store. People are able to see before they come up from Fredericksburg or Virginia Beach. It’s really awesome that people want to take the time to do that.”
Indeed, business-based tourism helps support the city as a whole. And it definitely is a thing.
“We’ve had people here on vacation from New York [because] someone has told them ‘You need to go to Carytown. They have these shops,’” said Brown. “I think a thing that people tend to overlook is that local businesses make a city special. They make it really unique, and people will go to those cities because they’ve heard X amount of shops exist.”
“Essentially, you’re allowing people who are creative to bring a service to the city,” added Egger. “People really like supporting local business. I think the fact that the city isn’t massive keeps it really special. Everyone knows everyone by two degrees.”
This was shown in dramatic fashion in 2018, when national grocery store Publix took over the former Ukrops/Martins grocery store in Carytown’s Richmond Shopping Center. As part of the strip mall’s planned redevelopment, shopping center owner Regency Centers evicted over a dozen local businesses, forcing longtime tenants like the Aquarian Bookstore and Carytown Burgers and Fries to find new homes. The response from city residents was not very happy, by any means.
“We don’t like it when big companies uproot small businesses,” said Brown. Whether the disapproval will carry over to Publix once it opens in 2020 remains to be seen.
“I think it’s going to be a mixed bag,” Brown said. “There will be people who don’t care, there will be new students who won’t even know that was an issue, and then there will be some people who will choose to not shop there.”
Supporting local business doesn’t just help keep people’s dreams alive, it also keeps money in the community and gives our city a more distinct flavor. And nothing can replace the experience of walking into a unique store and finding things you can’t find anywhere else.
“If you don’t support and you just shop online, eventually the small stores will close,” Tefft said. “We can’t pitch battles against Goliath. So instead of fighting the David’s battle, we fight to make our business the best it can be, and live the best life we can live.”
“Keep Richmond Weird,” Brown concluded.