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Sunday, April 13, 2008

R.I.P., La Belle Histoire

Another topic I constantly harp on: support our local businesses!

Could someone please supply me with a list of retail establishments in the Soulard neighborhood--often and rightfully considered one of St. Louis's most vibrant and active communities? I'll start.

Let's see. There's Vincent's Market for groceries. There's Pets in the City for the four-legged friends. The Soulard Framery has your framing needs covered. The Porch is a sort of electic gift shop filled with crafts, sundries, and, yes, wine.

And, of course, there's the crown jewel of local commerce of the city--the Soulard Market.

Why do I ask for such a list?

Well, just a month or two ago, it was announced by STL Alamode that Soulard's gypsy store on the corner of South 12th and Victor was closing its doors for good. La Belle Histoire is going out of business, or perhaps already has for all I know sitting here in the University of New Orleans' Earl K. Long Library.

Part of me feels I must merely accept the volatility of local business; how the owners must compete with mall stores that can afford to stay open from 10am until 9pm; how local owners are often in it for the passion and not for the money anyway; how having a small storefront means a smaller inventory and higher prices and how those facts in today's Wal-Mart dependent retail climate tend to doom all but the most dedicated and successful of local entrepreneurs.

But the other part is simply angry. The owner of La Belle--I never got her name despite the dozens of times I shopped for gifts in her one-of-a-kind store--would always lament to me, a face she began to recognize, about how St. Louisans simply prefer their cars and their shopping centers to out-of-the-way, unique local storefronts where the uncertainty of the non-brand name squarely scares most off.

But she's located in Soulard, I always thought. Certainly she was just being a bit hard on her home neighborhood (she lived above the storefront; I wonder if she'll remain after closing up shop), I imagined. Sure she could be making more money in a city that promoted small businesses over, or at least in parity to, the megachains, megadevelopments, and their megaTIFs. But even more surely, she was in a walkable neighborhood in a beautiful building with unique products and bellydancing classes and Mardi Gras wares and handcrafted mirrors and delicate glass ornaments for all seasons and two rooms full of the most unpredictable but surprisingly useful items for a store marketed as the gypsy store.

Most will tell me to pipe down, to realize that her products were not all that diverse and that she couldn't survive trying to fill such a nuanced niche.

And I would reply: then St. Louis's urbanity is non-existent. If we don't have enough people (pedestrians or otherwise) to keep her store afloat, then Soulard, or greater St. Louis, has simply failed as a neighborhood, as a city. It's failed in its utter backward turn towards and embrace of clustered autocentric shopping centers. It's treasonous in its subsidizing them.

La Belle was open for a good run in this city: six years. Does retail not work in St. Louis City? Why does it not? Is it because our leadership and the citizenry that continues to vote them in think that the issue of keeping these venerable storefront operations in business is a matter of the "free" market and that their failures are simply the vicissitudes of that market? Probably.

But as La Belle Histoire's awning collects dust, I hope its whimsical font is still visible to passers-by. I hope it serves to remind us all that someone poured her heart and soul and money and passion into making a corner of St. Louis, once the den of all interactions in this city, once again a place where our unique local character could be drunk by the barrel.

R.I.P. La Belle Histoire (2002-2008).


Brian said...

I would contend that Soulard doesn't really have a cohesive retail identity, outside of bars and restaurants.

I think that people here are willing to support local businesses - you see it in up-and-coming business districts like Morganford and Macklind and established ones like the CWE. Suburban business districts, such as downtown Kirkwood and Webster and Clayton Road in Ladue are particularly strong in this regard. I could see Cherokee, The Grove and other districts eventually taking off as well. And who knows what the redevelopment of the 14th Street Mall in ONSL will bring?

Matt M. said...

I sure hope so, Brian. And thanks for calming me down. :)

I do worry that it's only a restaurant thing. St. Louis will still be shipping its sales tax revenues to bordering suburbs and to large corporations if we can't attract more of a local entrepreneurial climate. When we do that, we can have a nice balance of the big guys and the little guys and benefit from the services that all of them provide.

ablank said...

A couple of the girls at the restaurant where I work know the owner of the "gypsy store" and apparently she is just tired of having a business and wants to spend more time on other pursuits. She had a huge sale when she decided to close and everything cleared out quickly within a week or so. Lots of people were familiar with her and her business and I heard numerous times about her closing at work from staff and customers (I, apparently, am the only one who just found out about it--and now it is closed!). I also think if she had been located a little more toward Russell or even in Benton Park she would have had more business. I believe the store is on Victor, which is kind of out of the way. I firmly believe it's all about location or sheer hype here in STL, which is why Cherokee and the Grove are doing so well lately.

Matt M. said...

It's actually very true. I sort of like the hype aspect--it's cool to live in one of the neighborhoods on the receiving end of the hype.

Because St. Louis is such a slow-growth city, you never really get the insidious gentrification of San Francisco, where a neighborhood of working class Hispanics is pushed out by dull ex-suburban whites who import Starbucks to the neighborhood in place of hole-in-the-wall tortillerias.

What you do get is a neighborhood that remains edgy and gritty while having a tense but existing relationship between the monied that arrive and the moneyless that remain in the neighborhood.

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