Fair Oaks Boulevard is a main thoroughfare that reaches from Sacramento into the suburb of Carmichael where I live. Then, it continues for several more miles into the once sleepy little town of Fair Oaks. I was driving this familiar street thinking about how normal everything seemed. Traffic continues as always with people coming and going the same as they do every day. From this vantage point, nothing really seems much different than it was five years ago. If you just had your eyes on the road and paid no attention to your surroundings, you wouldn’t suspect we were in the middle of America’s worst depression in 80 years.
Yet, today as I walked a two block distance down that same street, I was struck by how obvious the downturn really was. Things only seem normal. Most of us have gotten so used to the pockets of empty stores and businesses that line our streets that we no longer even notice them as we drive by. Shuttered shops are as familiar a site as foreclosed homes. It’s all become quite normal.
There’s that pizza place I used to take the kids. The sign is still up, but the place has been closed for at least a year, maybe longer. Gone also is the Jewish deli that was a local landmark for decades. The big craft store just went out of business last week.
On the second block, an entire strip mall stands empty except for a Walgreen’s drug store that shares the parking lot. Every single other business that was there closed up who knows how long ago. Last year someone opened a Mongolian Barbecue restaurant in there, the lone business on the entire strip. Mongolian Barbecue is my favorite kind of food, but I couldn’t support the place by myself. It closed within three months of opening. They just couldn’t make a go of it.
Most noticeable on my walk was the large, empty building that once housed a major sporting goods outlet and at least two places that thrived selling high-end furniture. If not for the imposing presence of the buildings that used to house them, I would have already forgotten these local landmarks had been there. The same is true with the fine dining establishment that was famous, not only for its gourmet food but also its gourmet food prices.
It was the disappearance of these high-end businesses that most surprised the locals when they closed. Conventional wisdom says that shops and restaurants that cater to the upper middle class would always have a supportive clientele to keep them afloat even when smaller Mom & Pops went under. But conventional wisdom fails to mention that it was largely members of the upper middle class who lost half their savings when the stock and housing markets went south five years ago. When the upper crust has to start watching their nickels, upper crust establishments are the first to go under.
Been To The Mall Lately?
If you really want to see how bad things have gotten, go check out your local mall. The one nearest my home contains a second run movieplex we go to now and then. This is the kind of place that used to be known as a “dollar theater,” but I suppose it’s a sign of the times that admission to a movie that has finished its run elsewhere now cost $3.75 when it used to be a buck . But it’s a bigger sign of the times that not long ago this theater used to be a typical mall cineplex showing first run films. Now they fill more seats by showing older films and charging a smaller admission.
Leave the cineplex and take a stroll down the mall, and you’re struck by two findings: a disturbing number of stores have gone out of business, and there aren’t any shoppers in the stores that still exist.
That’s an exaggeration, of course. There are shoppers in the mall, just not very many of them. There are certainly not as many as I’m used to seeing in the kind of first rate indoor mall this one has always been. The place is so quiet you can actually hear the Muzak as you stroll. This is the kind of calm I did not expect in a place that I remember as bustling five years ago.
And it’s like this now in every mall in the area. We have four major malls in Sacramento, and none of them are doing well. A fifth mall began a slow death a few years ago after Weinstock’s, a high-end department store, closed its doors forever. Store after store went under until nothing was left but Sears, and finally Sears bailed too. Eventually the entire structure was razed and now a Super Walmart stands in its place. That Walmart is doing just fine.
It wasn’t that long ago that a huge new mall with spacious underground parking opened in Downtown Sacramento to a great deal of fanfare. There was a lot of buzz about how this mall would revitalize the dying downtown district. But now that mall can’t seem to keep tenants any more than it can attract shoppers. That mall’s biggest enemy was itself. It was touted as a high-end shopping center housing high-end stores to attract the high-end shopper. But in a once thriving government town where government workers are now being laid off left and right, those high-end shoppers don’t seem to exist in sufficient numbers to keep the mall afloat. There is already talk of tearing it all down and using the land for something else.
That’s one reason I have taken an interest in the opening of a sparkling new mall in my old home town, Salt Lake City. The City Creek Center is an impressive undertaking which aims to revitalize the old downtown district which was beginning to look rather seedy. City Creek has lawns, waterfalls, fountains, and even a creek running down the middle. It features 100 mostly high-end establishments with names like Tiffany’s, Brooks Brothers, Porsche Design, L’occitane, and others designed to attract the high-end consumer.
I’ve seen videos of the crowds on opening day. There are a lot of folks present, and they seem to be having a nice enough time strolling the grounds and enjoying this new shopping center. But there is something odd about this happy crowd of shoppers: they don’t appear to be buying anything. Almost none of the people I see in these videos are carrying shopping bags.
There are those who hope an economic recovery is right around the corner, but the signs I read are telling me just the opposite. Now is not the time for ostentatious spending; this is the time to hunker down and get ready for harder times to come.
If you are fortunate enough to be one of the upper crusties and can afford to shop at high-dollar boutiques, I say good for you. Buy everything you can afford. Go nuts. But I hope before all your money runs out, you’ve also stocked up on food and other necessities because there’s a storm coming.