Friday, December 2, 2011

Does This Urban Outfit Make Me Look Fatuous?

Urban Outfitters is putting on a crazy push to finish their store in downtown Portland, Maine.

As I walked by tonight, it occurred to me that although having a national chain plunked down in the midst of the Old Port, our charming little enclave of locally-owned boutiques, feels a little yicky, it's actually a weird testament to the strength and success of our small businesses.  Urban Outfitters isn't interested in atmosphere, it's interested in cash, and the fact that it made sense to them to take up real estate downtown instead of somewhere in the strip mall wasteland that is South Portland is kind of like a high five to the business owners who've grown the area over the past few decades.  You know, the kind of high five you get from your mortal enemy who's super passive aggressive but who it's way easier to just make nice with than face their mean-girl vengeance if you snub them.

If I were the kind of person who paid for clothes instead of scavenging cast offs from friends and making my own from bed linens, I'd think, "Ooh. Urban Outfitters' clearance rack is totally like retail junk food and junk food is so fun.  But I'ma make a concerted effort to get my metaphorical fashion groceries at local stores too, because they're the reason there's even anything in this area besides rats and dive bars.  And I'm never, ever going to buy anything from UO with writing in a foreign language I don't speak, because of that one time when Tricia used her Japanese lessons and realized that they had a T-shirt that said, 'I'm a stupid white person' and she splurged and bought it because it was so hilarious that people who couldn't read it were wearing it because oriental-fetishism was at its peak in the late-90's and it totally scandalized our friend Yuko and Tricia's Japanese hair dresser, both of whom assumed she'd misunderstood."

That, friends, is exactly what I would think.


  1. Since I see no like button, I shall respond by typing out actual words. Well said! Especially the part about how UO's competitors are the only reason there's anything there-- meaning a marketplace-- in the OP in the first place. And with it so close by, think of how many times a day we can not shop there! Glee!

  2. Another friend recently noted that another piece of the UA MO is to take pointers from the chic tastemakers around them and knock off their style. I am therefore VERY excited about how many times a day we can not shop there and furthermore plan to walk in each time just to announce that I'm not. You know, until they issue the restraining order and I accuse them of not being able to take a joke. Ye gods, I'm losing it.

  3. If you've been to other towns you where these guys have come in you will see it is the begining of the end for local stores. Yes, those Old Port retailers who have braved the weather and made the area desireable deserve kudos but dumping a shark into the tank with them is no way to say thanks. Its a race to the bottom. As with NYC and Austin (tastemaker cities) these retailers bring the Disneyfication of local downtowns. They'll drive the rent up and mark my words. Without protections, (a limit to the number of chains in the downtown) the Old Port will continue to become an outdoor Mall that you can visit anywhere USA. Thank Dave Marshall for over turning the anti- formula business law when he first took office and then ask him to repent his ways and offer a proposal for some kind of limit to the amount of square footage big box chains can inhabit in the Old Port-now that the horse has left the barn.

  4. It's definitely a very real threat, although the most naive part of me actually wonders how successful this experiment will be.

    I'm probably (okay, almost undoubtedly) giving people too much credit, but I do think there's a commitment among the populace to the character of the downtown and with that a certain suspicion of and distaste for big concerns like this.

    And for those who don't share that philosophy, I'm not sure that UO, once the inevitable burst of curiosity subsides, really has the kind of draw to convince chain store shoppers accustomed to ample parking and a plethora of similar establishments nearby (say, Old Navy or the Gap versus the more upscale, pricier Black Parrot, Bliss, Brook There offerings in the Old Port) that it's worth the hassle. In other words, I don't know that Old Port shoppers are big UO fans and vice versa. If you're looking for poorly-made mid-price meta-couture, the mall and the surrounding area is still going to be the go to.

    The history of chains in the downtown area is hardly illustrious: a boom in excellent local restaurants pushed TGIFriday's out of the high-rent Old Port in the late-nineties, likewise Burger King in Monument Square. Olympia Sports on Congress Street was a short-lived experiment and even the homegrown juggernaut L.L. Bean pulled out.

    Chains are accustomed to getting a lot of bang for their buck, rent-wise, and intown pricing, in the Old Port even more than on Congress Street is a lot of money for not a lot of square footage. UO will more than likely turn a profit, but it almost certainly won't be putting up the kind of numbers it would if it was leasing traditional big box real estate. In that sense, the maniacally greedy nature of the beast may actually be a boon to those of us who'd just as soon see them take a hike.

    The Middle Street location is similar in some ways to the store on Broadway in Manhattan, but is considerably smaller and less likely to do enough business to do proportionally well. In NY and other similar locales, they can expect to get a significant amount of casual walk-in business whereas in Portland they're looking almost entirely at destination shoppers and again, I can't see a lot of people getting so excited about this store that it's worth it to go through downtown parking hell, nor do I think there's enough crossover between "Old Port shoppers" and UO shoppers that it'll seem worthwhile.

    As far as this being a gateway drug for Disnification, there isn't a ton of real estate in downtown Portland that suits stores of this ilk. Before it landed on Marginal Way, there was discussion of Trader Joe's moving in to the spot now occupied by Reny's, but it was too small for their taste. In the Old Port, the big space pickins are even slimmer.

    I definitely hear what you're saying and likewise dread the death of our unique local culture. And like I said, I recognize that my optimism about the future of the area not going to the corporate dogs is probably more than a little naive, but I'm going to hold onto my faith in local humanity for as long as I can.