“We don’t want to emerge into a post-apocalyptic chain store scenario,” says Daniel Sanders, co-owner of Spiritex, as he holds up his end of a banner and stands in front of Urban Outfitters, across the street from his own clothing shop. He says he never wants to walk down a street in Asheville and feel like he could be somewhere else: homogeneous reiterations of the store fronts in hundreds of other towns.
At the other end of the banner is Marylou Marsh, his partner at Spiritex. In response to Anthropologie opening Friday, they and other self-proclaimed “localists” of the Asheville Grown Business Alliance, mostly downtown small business owners, came out to tread the boards in an UnChain Asheville rally during the Holiday Parade Saturday.
Although they were competing with Santa Claus and marching bands for the attention of the throngs downtown, the 50 or so UnChain Asheville activists were able to attract attention to their cause, handing out fliers with information about buying local. And according to Perry Martino, co-owner of Perfect Gifts, the response from passers by, as he stood in front of Anthropologie, was “99 percent favorable.” Although, he said, one person did try to punch him and threatened to call the police when Martino approached the man. “But that was it, only one person. Most people are very receptive and they’re listening and understand. They want to keep Asheville unique and local.”
Asheville Grown founder and rally organizer Franzi Charen (owner of Hip Replacements) says the presence on the street, in front of the two stores and on the parade route in front of Asheville Music Hall, is important because they get to make the case for buying from local businesses to the important deciders in this matter: those who shop downtown. “We are telling them why we’re opposed to more chain stores coming into downtown Asheville. The chain store corporations send money back up to Wall Street and don’t [put] the money back into our community. Locally owned businesses circulate three times more money in our community than chain stores. They’re also responsible for the secondary jobs. We want to keep our downtown healthy, and we also want to keep our downtown unique.” Sanders adds, “We’re here because we want to make sure people are aware that buying and creating local, and supporting that, is the heart of Asheville.”
The issues that Marsh has with competing on price with a chain clothing store are multifaceted, she explains: “There’s many levels you have to consider really, from carbon footprint to wages to just how business is conducted in community.”
Her business uses fiber from Texas and all of the dying and knitting is done in North Carolina. Being as local as possible has a cost. “My stuff is all made local,” she says. “It’s fair wage labor, so think about my costs on labor. You’re talking about an average of 10 dollars an hour on up. … Every single part of our business is here, so more than just the jobs we have in that store, it’s jobs that tentacle out in all directions. That’s not happening [at chains].”
One main concern with chain stores is that although local business owners say they can generally compete with high-end chains on quality and value, if rent prices rise too much, too quickly many of them wouldn’t be able to absorb the costs the way a chain company would. There is talk among store owners of leases being up and of seeing rent increases as high as 40 percent. Marsh’s take on it is that rising rent won’t just hurt current business owners, but also the future downtown shopkeepers.
“If [we’re] priced out with really high rents, it will price people out of the ball game for all the entrepreneurs that are coming up.” Sanders says, though clarifying that not all landlords are the same. “I think it’s important … that the landlords who are keeping and holding the line are praised for their commitment. We have many wonderful landlords here who have a vested interest in this town and want to see it remain vibrant with a lot of local flavor. I think the problem is when we get outside investors coming in and buying the real estate and they’re the ones who are creating a higher rent model that will price out a lot of the locals. It’s already happening with the residential component of the city. It’s almost impossible to find an affordable place for people of middle class means to live downtown. So we’re just concerned that the same thing’s going to happen to the … businesses.”
So far, there are only a handful of stores in downtown Asheville that are considered chains, and as far as many locals are concerned, that’s a good thing. As of Saturday, the UnChain Asheville Save Downtown Asheville petition had collected nearly 5,000 signatures. And City Council member-elect Brian Haynes, who was hoisting an “UNChain AVL” sign Saturday and whose campaign signs read “vote local,” certainly has that point of view. “I supported this cause from the beginning, even back before [Urban Outfitters] existed, when we had a business here. I just believe that the chains are not good for Asheville, and I’d like to see them stay out if possible, for downtown, not everywhere just downtown, and West Asheville.”
On the other hand, there seemed to be nearly as many folks walking around toting Urban Outfitters bags as there were carrying UnChain Asheville signs. And some say they are excited by Anthropologie opening, perhaps none more than the new location’s senior store manager, Faymi Winters. “We’re just excited to be here,” she said when asked about the protesters in front of her store. “My husband’s a local here and we were so excited to move back to the community. … But our whole team is just great and excited to be here.”
She says the new Anthropologie has already seen a lot of foot traffic in its opening weekend. “Too many people to count really. We saw so many friends, family, supporters. I mean so many people are so excited to have Anthropologie here, so it was really fun.”
As for any concern about local response to chain stores, she maintains that the company is not worried.
“We feel really good about being in the community,” Winters explained. “We’ve done some really great community outreach and we’ve been partnering quite a bit with Open Heart Arts Center, … and it was really inspiring for all of us to learn about their nonprofit organization and get involved and be able to be in a position to give back.”
She added that they are “really excited to have jobs available to people here in the community and to be able to represent this really inspiring environment that I think Anthropologie provides to the people of Asheville.” According to Winters the store opened with about 50 employees and the wages are competitive for the area.
As for the protesters’ view of the stores, although they aren’t happy about the new chain’s presence and they would like to prevent more from coming, Martino says of the people working inside: “They’ve been very nice. We get it: They need a job, [and] they probably live local, so it’s not against them. It’s more about educating people what happens when national chains open, start taking over people’s leases when they come due and they can’t afford it. … The next thing you know, you have national chain malls and Any Mall USA.”