Thursday, August 2, 2007

Herald's Chicken: Handouts for Failing Businesses

"Another Hyde Park Staple Forced Out," proclaims the headline on page one of this week's Hyde Park Herald (Wednesday, August 1, 2007). The reader is encouraged to think that some sort of ominous force or conspiracy has killed off a necessity for life in our neighborhood. It turns out, of course, that nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Dr. Wax Records (a used vinyl and CD store in Harper Court) is $15,000 behind in rent payments. Dr. Wax’s landlord, the Harper Court Foundation, has taken the radical position that a lease should be honored and Dr. Wax’s owner should pay up.

This is part of a several themes that run through the Herald’s pages:

  1. There are conspiracies at work (mostly from profit-hungry capitalists) to rob our neighborhood of its distinctive character
  2. The Harper Court Foundation is not transparent in its dealings with the community and, therefore, something must be amiss.
  3. Any thing worth fighting for cannot exist in the marketplace and must be subsidized by government or community intervention.
Let’s take a closer look at Dr. Wax. Record stores are a dying phenomenon (witness the closing of the mother of all stores, the Virgin Mega store, and closer to home Coconuts). The reason is that music lovers buy their songs, one at a time, or steal them off of the internet. This is a trend that we cannot buck. Is this socially undesirable? The Herald would have us believe that stores like Dr. Wax support “underground” music or at least music that is only popular with small (i.e. elite) segments of the population. The Herald has not yet arrived in the 21st century. The wonderful thing about the internet is that it allows artists with small followings to make a living by providing them access to a large market. Niche markets thrive on the internet. Dr. Wax can only tap a very small local market, no wonder it is a model that is obsolete. We might have nostalgic memories of browsing Jimi Hendrix albums in “Spin It Records” as teenagers but now we can simply log on and even listen to the songs!

Dr. Wax records is no longer commercially viable. Does this mean that our value system is shaken to the core? No, it simply says that there aren’t many people who want to buy records there. Should we ask the Harper Court Foundation to cut a special deal for this dying business? Presented this way, this proposition is absurd. But the Herald has taken this position many times regarding Harper Court. For reasons known only to Herald editors, the businesses in Harper Court are viewed as special (what do a state senator office, a vet, a caterer, and a few restaurants have in common?) and deserve to be insulated from the market. We should allow them to run their businesses poorly and fail to attract customers. Isn’t the only purpose of a business to serve customers? If Dr. Wax can’t drum up business, why should we step in?

The headline is carefully crafted to use the phrase “forced out.” The idea here is that there is some wicked conspiracy to kill off the weak sisters. We must protest and tilt against the windmills of power. The only power here is the power of the consumer to choose how he or she buys records. This is a very powerful force but not one we should oppose.

But the farce continues, the Herald proudly reports the progress of a petition drive to “save Dr. Wax records.” Some 500 or so signatures are reported. Are these 500 customers for Dr. Wax records? This is cheap talk. We want the option of going to Dr. Wax but we aren’t willing to actually buy records from the store. Soon blue and white stickers “Save Dr. Wax” will be plastered over the “Save the Point” bumper stickers. Should anyone care?

Harper Court is a failed experiment born of 1960’s liberalism. The idea was to provide a nonprofit foundation to run a cluster of retail spaces for artists and other bohemians forced out by urban renewal. Somehow, lower rents could be charged as the Harper Court Foundation wouldn’t need to turn a profit. Of course, there are few things in business harder than running small retail stores. The most successful tenants soon left and Harper Court became “Huckster’s Court” - a sad collection of anemic businesses. With low rents, the Harper Court Foundation could ill afford to maintain and upgrade what was a poorly designed and constructed set of structures to begin with. We are left with a disgrace to our neighborhood. The wrecker’s ball can’t come too soon. A parking lot, of all things, would do more to help 53rd street than this continued mess.


chicago pop said...

It's true that, rather than underground music cultures dying off when stores like Dr. Wax close, underground/alternative/conoisseur genres are thriving, just not on shelves in bricks and mortar outlets -- just look at, where all sorts of bands post music that can be accessed by people the world over, when previously it might only be known to a few groupies in the neighborhood.

The same market dynamics are also true of books and bookstores; but here for some reason the local culture is such that at least one very strong retailer can hold on.

Famac said...

Another way you can tell Harper Court isn't run by the mob: $15,000 behind in his rent and still walking.

chicago pop said...

...although I've always wondered if one of the Harper tenants, C'est si bon, isn't a front for something. I've never seen anyone go in or out of that place, and have tried a few times myself to go have a meal there during their regular business hours; never with any success. Just what are they cooking?

Famac said...

Maybe its a mispelling of psilocybin, but then the place would be full.

Elizabeth Fama said...

Ha ha ha! I can't stop laughing at C'est si bon = psilocybin. You guys made my day.