Editorial: Politically Correct Shopping is Getting Harder

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday December 18, 2007

First, let’s stipulate that the Planet was delighted to get the lively and well-written commentary about the virtues of some of our distinctive local businesses from Deborah Badhia of the Downtown Berkeley Association which ran in our last issue. We’ve patronized many of them ourselves over the years, and we have a healthy appreciation even for some we’ve had no occasion to try. (I don’t usually need to buy electric guitars, but I appreciate Fatdog at Subway because of his community participation.) 

Next, let’s agree that we understand the statistics cited, and agree with most of them. Keeping sales tax revenues in town seems especially pertinent, although there are problems with that goal which we’ll take up later. We know that some of the revenues of locally owned businesses are re-circulated locally. 

But. It is profoundly disheartening to see, on the very day that we’ve contributed our editorial pages for free to boost local businesses, huge ads in the San Francisco paper for both Solano Avenue and the Elmwood shopping areas, including ads from quite a number of “local” businesses which have told our sales people that they can’t afford to advertise in the Planet. Some of our loyal advertisers were represented too, of course, and we have no complaint with businesses like theirs which can afford to look for customers outside the Planet’s circulation area as well as inside it.  

Lawrence J. Peter once advised “Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell, and advertise.” We happen to believe that shopping locally has to be supported by advertising locally or it’s probably not going to happen. All of our readers are surely tired of hearing this by now. 

Why do we bring this up? Well, it’s shopping season, no matter how much some of our readers may decry it. Shopping will be done, like it or not, and insofar as one shops, where one shops is relevant. In years past we’ve featured alternatives which are still good: the flea market, the crafts fair at the Saturday farmers’ market (check out the abalone shell earrings!), fair trade merchants, used books.  

Several of these venues are endangered species these days. Developers covet the Ashby BART parking lot where the flea market is held. (Flea markets in Santa Cruz and San Jose have already been snatched away by developers.) Fair trade stores are threatened by rising rents. Booksellers of all kinds are held hostage by Internet commerce.  

The relentless gentrifiers are now going after San Pablo Avenue, where used (I mean “recycled”) merchandise was formerly abundant. Even the St. Vincent de Paul store near the corner of University has been forced out. Soon it will be all market-rate condominiums whose owners will drive to Emeryville to shop. (No, Virginia, studies show that most of them will NOT take the bus.) 

The downtown area planning committee chair, professional planner Will Travis, was quoted in the San Francisco paper on Monday as saying “Berkeley’s downtown plan has resulted in a wonderful, vibrant, mixed-use community. It’s called Emeryville.” With friends like that, downtown Berkeley doesn’t need enemies. Of course, he might not actually have said that, since there were a number of obvious mistakes in the same story.  

One stunning group of compounded errors:  

“The plan also coincides with huge private investment downtown, totaling tens of millions of dollars over the past few years. Berkeley City College, Berkeley Repertory Theater, Freight and Salvage nightclub and the Shattuck Hotel are a few downtown businesses that have recently undergone extensive expansions and refurbishing.” 

Berkeley City College, of course, is not a private business at all, but is part of the tax-supported Peralta community college district. Berkeley Repertory Theater is not actually a private business either, though it sometimes seems to be run like one. It’s a non-profit which was gifted with $4 million of city-backed financing, which has now cost the city about $10 million when interest payments are included in the tally. The planners’ pitch then was that public arts investment would revive downtown, but it doesn’t seem to have worked. 

Freight and Salvage is another arts non-profit. It hasn’t even made it downtown yet, but is now trying to raise the money to get there, from mostly public sources. The Shattuck Hotel is indeed privately owned, but its expansion is planned for the future and its refurbishing isn’t finished. 

Even the movie theaters which were the basis for many of the plans to make Berkeley an arts destinations have gone the way of theaters everywhere. Those in neighborhoods and downtowns failed first, but now even the mall megaplexes are going under, pushed out by easy and cheap access to movies at home.  

Retail in downtowns is a similar story. The major for-profit businesses which have failed downtown in the last decade are the same mall chains courted by the city staff planners who were Travis’s predecessors as Emeryville-envyers: Ross For Less, Eddie Bauer, Gateway Computers, Barnes and Noble and the like. Mall chains do better in malls, supported by acres of free parking, but both downtowns and malls are being challenged by on-line sales. That’s not only in Berkeley, that’s everywhere. Check out BloomingtonAlternative.com on the web, or the dozens of other small town papers now trying to survive online, if you think it’s different elsewhere. 

And now let’s get back to the theory that local spending is good because it brings retail sales tax dollars into city coffers. I used to say that myself, but five years of close observation of what the City of Berkeley does with our money is starting to change my mind. It has become abundantly clear that more dollars for Berkeley don’t mean more services for residents. What more tax money means is just higher pay for already well-paid top-level public employees, even as our public pools are closed and our parking rates are raised.  

The added parking fees are supposed to pay for a few measly public bathrooms which ought to be provided from the general fund anyway. And don’t expect to see them any time soon, if at all.  

If you’re looking for a non-cynical shopping suggestion and don’t want to contribute to local sales taxes, there’s one I can wholeheartedly advance. Buy the delicious homemade cakes and pies from Arthur Davis at the Farmers’ Market. He doesn’t make them himself (Mrs. Davis does) and he doesn’t live in Berkeley (their farm is in Santa Rosa), but the Davises provide honest value for your money, and buying from them helps at least one family farm stay afloat. As Martha Stewart used to say, that’s a Very Good Thing.