In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal (“In Praise of Shopkeepers,” July 17th) Joseph Epstein all but buried Evanston as a shopper’s “destination town,” even though he is a resident. His point: shopkeeps of yore have moved elsewhere, specifically to Andersonville in Chicago, just three miles or so away. According to Mr. Epstein, “the good useful shops” that once lured distant shoppers here have fallen away. What remains, he writes, are “shops catering to students,” lamenting, “Downtown Evanston is Taco Bell country now, land of Starbucks and Burger King and The Gap.”

Jonathan Perman, Executive Director of the Evanston Chamber of Commerce sent a copy of his reply to Mr. Epstein to the RoundTable. In it Mr. Perman acknowledges that “Mr. Epstein is indeed a witty writer and observer” but notes that “he should be careful not to substitute wit for fact.”

Mr. Epstein admittedly limits his observations on retail in Evanston to “within  three blocks of my apartment,”  saying in effect that “the old grey mare, she ain’t what she used to be.” Not surprisingly most Evanstonians would agree. In recent years, Evanston has certainly gone post-modern. But Mr. Perman argues quite strongly that our City has not lost its “curiosity shop” allure.

Mr. Perman crunches numbers covering the 12 square blocks of Evanston’s downtown area, showing that of 179 retail sites, excluding “spas, health facilities, personal care, yoga, etc…” 123 are independently owned,  50 are chain-related and 6 are regional. He goes on to point out  “such unique destination shops as Bookman’s Alley, Asinamali…Audio Consultants, Ixia…the Comix Revolution, Ethical Planet…and Turin Bicycle – all of which are just steps from his home.”

Mr. Epstein observes that “Running a good shop is a service to one’s community, of much greater value, in my view, than the work of two hundred social workers, five hundred psychotherapists, and a thousand second-rate poets…” Mr. Perman responds, “Instead of ranking and grouping, one might look at the interdependency of these occupations and how they rely on one another to consume the product or service that they offer.”

Curiously, Mr. Epstein and Mr. Perman are looking at Evanston commerce through two different windows, both finding what they are looking for underlining the fact, oddly enough, that one can get just about anything they are looking for in Evanston. As every shopper knows, the fun is in the finding. 

Dear Editor:

      After reading Joseph Epstein’s, “In Praise of Shopkeepers,” opinion, July 17, I was troubled by the partial counting system he employed to inform your readers about the retail landscape of downtown Evanston, IL.  Mr. Epstein decries the “paucity of interesting and useful shops” and then launches into a discordant whine about “corporate-owned” businesses.

 

      From his description, it would appear Mr. Epstein lives in downtown Evanston, a very successful transit-oriented neighborhood with a mix of national, regional, and independent stores and restaurants.  Here are the facts about Mr. Epstein’s neighborhood (Note: he cited shops within three blocks of his apartment.  Our geography will be a bit larger, encompassing the entire downtown of 12 square blocks).  The statistics below are only true retail stores, not service businesses or personal care places like hair salons or athletic clubs:

 

 Retail:

 Total = 96

Independent = 64 (67%)

Chain = 31 (32%)

Regional = 1 (1%), ie. Blick Art

 

 Restaurants/Eating Establishments:

 Total = 83

Independent = 59 (71%)

Chain = 19 (23%)

Regional = 5 (6%), ie. Argo Tea

 

Totals for all of the above:

 Total = 179

Independent = 123 (69%)

Chain = 50 (28%)

Regional = 6 (3%)

 

     Again, this does not include spas, health facilities, personal care, yoga, etc… –of which there are about 40, almost all independently owned.

 

      I would also point out some flaws in Mr. Epstein’s recounting of Evanston‘s retail history.  He seems to have selective memory as to why people came to downtown Evanston from 1920-1970.  Indeed, there were many small shops in Evanston, as there are today, but one cannot ignore the major anchor stores like Marshall Fields (regional chain, later national chain), Wieboldts (regional chain), and Rothschilds, just to name a few, that were a significant draw for regional consumers. 

 

 I also found it a bit ironic that Mr. Epstein, who writes regularly for free-market journals such as The Weekly Standard and Commentary would have a problem with the free-market development of downtown Evanston

 

     Mr. Epstein professes affection for “curiosity shops”, which, I suppose, are a matter of personal opinion.  Yet, It would appear Mr. Epstein’s curiosity is surprisingly limited for he fails to cite such unique destination shops as:  Bookman’s Alley, Asinamali (clothing boutique), Audio Consultants, Ixia (florist), The Comix Revolution, Ethical Planet (environmental products), and Turin Bicycle – all of which are just steps from his home.  And, for a fellow who just wrote a biography about Fred Astaire, Mr. Epstein might look to the Giordano Dance School as a local anchor that generates significant retail and restaurant traffic on

Davis Street

and other nearby streets in downtown Evanston.

 

      Mr. Epstein’s comparative study is Andersonville, essentially a one street shopping area in Chicago that is anchored by a large Jewel/Osco (national chain) with a big surface parking lot.  While dominated by independents like downtown Evanston, Andersonville also has the requisite T-Mobile and Starbucks. 

 

     Finally, Mr. Epstein fires a shot at the “two-hundred social workers, five-hundred psychotherapists, and a thousand second-rate poets” who he ranks well below the humble shopkeeper.  Instead of ranking and grouping, one might look at the interdependency of these occupations and how they rely on one another to consume the product or service that they offer.

 

      Mr. Epstein is indeed a witty writer and observer but he should be careful not to substitute wit for fact.

 

Jonathan Perman, Executive Director of The Evanston Chamber of Commerce