Business (not) as usual

[Editor’s note: This article is the first installment in what will become a monthly business section. Each month, we’ll do an in-depth story about a local business or business-related situation. Watch for the next business feature on June 26.]

Bad for business

We have always tried to be open to everybody and that hasn’t changed. But when we have a group of people outside that are blocking the entrance, that’s making it harder for everybody. That’s selfish behavior on the part of the people who are blocking the sidewalks, and also disrespectful.

— Malaprop’s general manager Jane Vorhees

“We just want to sell books!”

That was the collective cry from Malaprop’s staff members Jane Voorhees, Lin Orndorf, Annabeth Watts and Bobby Bradley, who were gathered around a table in the bookstore’s cafe one recent afternoon.

So what’s stopping them?

“Right before Thanksgiving, we started to see a dramatic increase in people, especially kids, hanging out in front of our store,” remembers Voorhees, Malaprop’s general manager/co-owner. “They were blocking the sidewalks, and customers started complaining about not being able to get to the door and into the store. When I asked people to move, they usually identified that space as public property and said it was their right to stay there. So, often, it would get confrontational, although not always,” she concedes. These sidewalk run-ins have been bad for business, according to Voorhees. “We’re now hearing from customers that they won’t shop here anymore. We’ve been specifically told, ‘We’re not going to come back; it’s too hard to get to your store,'” she says. “And it definitely has a ripple effect, because they tell their friends and so on.”

Ah, the old street-kids-vs.-downtown-merchants quandary. In 1996, Xpress reported on the clash between street kids and business owners on Lexington Avenue. In 1998, we examined collisions between street kids, police and business owners in and around Pack Square. And just last week, downtown businessman Nick Peterson called a meeting — held at The Body on Lexington Avenue — that attracted a large crowd of downtown merchants, city police, Asheville City Council members and street kids. The topics? Blocked sidewalks, panhandling, graffiti, harassment of customers, and dog feces in front of businesses — in other words, the same problems that have been linked to street kids (and, in some cases, to homeless alcoholics) time and time again.

At the meeting, some downtown merchants revealed that their businesses are rapidly losing customers due to blocked sidewalks and entrances. The owner of one small Lexington Avenue shop said she was “literally starving,” in part due to customers being too intimidated to enter her store. City officials pointed out that Asheville has no loitering laws, making it technically legal to hang out on public sidewalks. Street kids bemoaned the lack of places to hang out and complained they are unfairly branded as undesirables and constantly told to move on.

In other words, same song, different century. And since the issue embodies such a spectrum of social, political, ethical and philosophical conundrums, there are no easy answers. Should people have the legal right to congregate on public sidewalks, even if they’re blocking access to businesses and creating a nuisance? Do businesses have the right to agressively protect their customer base even if no laws are being broken? Are street kids being treated unfairly just because they look different? Or are they using such claims to justify disrespectful and rude behavior?

Meanwhile, back at Malaprop’s, the bathroom doors (formerly always open) are locked, the once-popular sidewalk tables are gone, and signs stretching the length of the store’s windows implore, “Please! Help keep our sidewalks clear & clean for everyone! No ceramic cups, no glasses, no dishes, no loitering. Thank you for your cooperation & understanding!”

Voorhees also points to a rash of vandalism that began last winter. (The culprits are unknown because nobody’s ever been caught in the act.) “The reason the bathrooms are now locked is that we’ve had to replace the urinal three times after it’s been ripped off the wall, the sink in the men’s room has been pulled off the wall, and the walls in both bathrooms have been literally covered with graffiti,” Voorhees explains. Plus, “the sink in the women’s room has had to be repaired, and other fixtures have been broken off the walls,” she adds.

Karen Ramshaw, vice-president of Public Interest Projects (the building’s landlord), reveals: “We actually put in more expensive fixtures last time, the kind that’s in a stadium or something. Our plumber called me after he put [them] in and he said, ‘They’ll never get that off the wall.’ Well, they did. The last time it came off the wall, I heard there was some poor guy in the stall who was afraid to come out.” Ramshaw also says she’s scrubbed graffiti from the Urban Trail sculpture in front of the store on numerous occasions.

She points out the irony that the nearly 20-year-old business — which started out a few doors down and is now at 55 Haywood St. — has long been cherished as a welcoming downtown gathering place. In fact, the store’s mission statement stipulates that Malaprop’s will foster “a gathering of people who are drawn to peaceful coexistence and the realization that knowledge is more valuable than money.”

“They’re always having free open mics and music and poetry readings and authors coming in,” emphasizes Ramshaw. “If you had to pick one business in downtown that has extended itself to the greatest number in the community, it would be Malaprop’s.” “Now, they’re getting calls from residents [in the apartments] upstairs and other business owners, blaming them for what’s happening on the sidewalks,” she continues. “In turn, people on the sidewalks are coming down on Malaprop’s because all of a sudden they’re being asked to leave. But if the store doesn’t make a profit, they’ll have to close their doors.” And if independent bookstores such as Malaprop’s close their doors, the only option left for shoppers will be large corporate chains.

In her experience, says Ramshaw, many of the kids who hang out are “adamant about what their rights are … but I really haven’t heard a lot of them talk about what their responsibilities are to their neighborhood and their community.” Ramshaw says she wishes they would “take some responsibility for being a member of the community and [protect] the downtown that they must love, because they’re not hanging out on Tunnel Road.”

Most small businesses operate on very tight margins, notes Ramshaw: “People are not getting wealthy in these little businesses.” They need every single customer that wants to come to their store to be able to get there and make that purchase.” America, she points out, has lost a quarter of its independent bookstores in the last 10 years. And if independent bookstores go out of business, small publishers are also in trouble. “The big chains like Barnes & Noble aren’t buying from little independent publishers,” she continues. In other words, we could end up with large corporate conglomerates as our sole sources of information.

Several of her friends, Ramshaw reports, have stopped shopping at Malaprop’s. “One of my friends, for example, had a bad experience trying to get in the store, and she simply went home and ordered her books from amazon.com,” says Ramshaw. “She felt sad about it, but she’d had a long day and didn’t need the added hassles.”

Malaprop’s staffers, meanwhile, say they still want to be welcoming to everyone.

“We have always tried to be open to everybody and that hasn’t changed,” asserts Voorhees. “But when we have a group of people outside that are blocking the entrance, that’s making it harder for everybody. That’s selfish behavior on the part of the people who are blocking the sidewalks, and also disrespectful. The place just needs to be respected. We want everybody to feel welcome to come here.”

Several months ago, Malaprop’s put their trademark outdoor tables into storage in an attempt to reduce the outside congestion. As Orndorf explains it, “When the tables were out there, a couple of people would sit at the tables and then their friends would all kind of form a line across the sidewalk.” In a store newsletter, Orndorf referred to the scenario as “a constant and intimidating human traffic jam. … Many of these folks were here all day, everyday.”

Voorhees is quick to note that it’s not the actual presence of the street kids that concerns her. “Our main concern is keeping the sidewalk clear; it’s about accessibility,” she explains. “It’s not that they’re out there too long or whatever.”

The tables and chairs are still in storage, but that hasn’t deterred groups of street kids from hanging out — though Voorhees reports that she’s seeing a gradual reduction in numbers most days. Just last week, Public Interest Projects decided to try a new measure: piping noticeably loud classical music onto the sidewalk. “We put in the classical music because we didn’t know what else to do,” relates Ramshaw. “We read articles that said make it pleasant, but don’t make it a place where people want to hang out for hours.”

The view from the street

I think what’s happening is that we’re breeding fear back and forth. We’re not listening to each other.

— Street kids proponent Hawker

What do the kids who routinely hang out in front of Malaprop’s (and other downtown spots) think of all the hoopla? Judging from the response of some regulars Xpress spoke with recently, reactions range from philosophical to angry.

Hawker — a polite young man with longish dark hair and wire-rimmed glasses — blames the continuing culture clashes on irrational fears. “I think what’s happening in town is that we’re breeding fear back and forth. We’re not listening to each other. Just as much as the merchants are afraid that they’re losing business because people are hanging out, their reactions are also causing them to lose business [from us]. There aren’t places for us to sit down anymore. The couches are gone at the library, the tables are gone at Malaprop’s. … If we would spend as much time communicating and getting over our issues and having each other understand, instead of creating battles, we’d get over ourselves. But the way we’re going, it’s just gonna get worse.”

Sky — a slender young woman sporting spiky purple braids and several facial piercings — agrees. “When there’s a bunch of scary-looking people like me, people tend to get afraid because they don’t know why we’re sitting out there all day long not doing anything,” she says. “And they just get intimidated by us because they’re scared.”

She goes on to emphasize the lack of places for kids to hang out in downtown Asheville. “We just need a place to go,” she laments. “We need a space to play. We’re kids, man. We’re just overgrown kids and we need a space to play,” she says. “We used to hang out at Pack Square and started getting arrested for hanging out there. We used to hang out in the Natural Mystic parking lot before it was a paid parking lot. We tried to do art there and play our drums and play hacky-sack there, and we started getting kicked out,” she says. “It seems to me the people of Asheville don’t really want a [diverse] scene here, but that’s one of the reasons tourists actually come here in the first place. … You see people in Asheville that you never see anywhere else, and it seems like people don’t need that anymore. That was a steppingstone, but now that they have their bridge, they don’t need to use steppingstones anymore.”

Sky’s friend Jay Yerkes points to a loss of what he calls “a real community” when the kids were pushed out of Pack Square in 1997-98. “Now we’re scattered all over the place,” he says. “There aren’t even as many park benches to sit on, so where do you sit?

“Back then, as now, the real problem downtown is with the older alcoholic men,” he asserts. “We’d stick together back then and say to them ‘Hey, I see you in that person’s face. What are you doing? And we’d put an arm around them, even though they were drunk, and escort them down the street,” he recalls.

The youth Xpress spoke with claim that they support local businesses by buying coffee and other essentials. “If it weren’t for the street kids, some of these businesses would go under in the wintertime,” reasons Sky.

Later, she lashes out at Malaprop’s for what she views as their unfair crackdown on street activity. “They say they’re all about multicultural this and multicultural that, but when other cultures are around, they’re fascist. I think it’s because they’re trying to pull in customers of a higher class — kind of yuppies or something – [and] we’re not the type of people that they want near their store. They want people to come in and drink their coffee and talk about crap all day and philosophize. And we just want to sit outside and talk about crap.”

Can the gap be bridged?

Last year, some of the same street kids regularly hung out in and around Lexington Avenue’s Mystic Coffee House — until owner John Alterman shut the place down, that is. “All the kids hanging out was definitely a big contributing factor to Natural Mystic closing,” explains Alterman, who now owns the Emerald Lounge, a private club on the same street. “I know we didn’t create that scene. I think we absorbed it from pretty much every business that wouldn’t tolerate it,” he says. “Mystic was trying to be tolerant, trying to be cool with people or whatever. We tried very, very hard to be tolerant and supportive, and it kind of backfired. … When I came to work and didn’t want to hang out in my own place, I realized it was time to go.”

Alterman points out: “I know a lot of those kids to be good people, although people who don’t know them could be more reluctant to wade through them. … It’s in essence a picket line around your business.”

Good kids or not, Alterman says he “got screwed” because he tried to be nice about the situation. “It didn’t matter if I was nice or not,” he recalls. “It wasn’t like I was going to get any respect either way.” Alterman required anyone hanging out at Natural Mystic to spend at least a dollar, “but a dollar was the average they spent [each],” he remembers. “A dollar, and we’d have to police the place and say, ‘OK, you’ve been here too long,'” he says. “It’s hard to keep an eye out. It’s definitely tough.”

Voorhees and Orndorf can relate. “It takes the fun out of the jobs that we have,” declares Orndorf. “We’re here to sell books and talk to people who want to buy them. And then you have to deal with issues on the sidewalk, and it takes your attention away from what you need to be doing.” Voorhees says she spends 80 percent of her time dealing with the sidewalk situation.

Sky and other street kids Xpress spoke with say they feel people do have enough space to walk by them and claim they don’t intentionally block anyone’s access. “It’s a pretty big sidewalk,” Sky reasons. “We might be street kids, we might be poor, but we’re not a**holes, you know,” she continues. “I compare the situation that’s going on to ants. There are many, many, many different types of ants … but all the ants work together to help their colony. … We all just have to get together, work together as a community and break down these barriers.”

Ironically, that’s really not so far from what Malaprop’s staff is saying — emphasizing the need for a broader dialogue to address the situation. “It’s not just a problem here at the store,” emphasizes Voorhees. “It’s a citywide problem, and any solution needs to involve the whole community. It’s a good thing that more people are talking about it. Talking is the beginning — we’re just at a loss as to what to do.”

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