Home to the nation’s first indoor shopping mall (Southdale) and the first megamall (Mall of America), the Twin Cities has a history of thinking big when it comes to retail.

Maybe we should be thinking small.

Styles for retail buildings — indoor malls, outdoor malls, “festive retail” (think St. Anthony Main and Galtier Plaza) stand-alone big box stores — come and go. Small storefronts, on the other hand, have thrived for generations.

Modest in size and usually simple in design, these centrally located structures have proved flexible enough to change with the times and the demands of consumers. That’s why they’ve been able to serve as home to many different kinds of businesses over the years.

Consider the storefronts at Lyn-Lake in Minneapolis or along W. 7th Street in St. Paul. Although they were built in the 19th century, they remain actively used today. Even at major intersections, such as 48th Street and Chicago Avenue S. in Minneapolis or Fairview and Cleveland avenues in St. Paul, small stores have been able to change with the times. Instead of hardware stores and insurance offices, these storefronts now host bakeries, fix-it shops, salons, clothing stores and restaurants.

By adding feet on the street, storefront shops help build community. They also nurture small businesses by providing start-up spaces and offer jobs close to home. Most important, they provide a greater economic return to neighborhoods than larger chain stores, according to several studies.

Unlike national chains and big boxes, small stores make more of a personal connection, too.

Alain Lenne is a daily presence at his shop, La Belle Crepe, in the Medical Arts Building in downtown Minneapolis. In fact, with his French accent and trademark hats, it’s hard to miss him.

Lenne creates a remarkable fusion of French and Vietnamese cuisine, ranging from crab Benedict crêpes to pho. What’s really remarkable is that all this happens in a space that is roughly 12 by 22 feet.

Of course, this wasn’t always a crêpe shop. In the 1960s it was home to a Fanny Farmer store. And before that? Well, just check out the transom window over the front door. There’s an etched glass panel that says: “Medical Arts Circulating Library and Card Shop.”

A few miles south is another example of the flexibility of small storefronts.

Located at 704 and 708 W. 22nd St. in Minneapolis, Fox Den Salon and the Caffetto coffee shop are next-door neighbors. The two very different businesses are run out of nearly identical storefront bays. Caffetto’s display windows are covered with posters for upcoming events. The Fox Den’s windows are filled with handmade seasonal displays. Such stores have a personality you won’t find in the controlled environments of skyways and shopping centers.

Striving for balance

Successful small shops face one dilemma: Sometimes they’re too successful.

They can lure more people to an area, and the homes, apartments and condominiums built to house those people chip away at the existing inventory of small buildings with modest rents.

And then the small-scale, personal shops that attracted many newcomers in the first place — the bookstores, co-ops, dry cleaning and shoe repair shops — get priced out of the neighborhood. We already see that happening in Uptown, the North Loop, East Hennepin and Dinkytown.

So how can we balance such new development with affordable rents for the small businesses that neighborhoods — and downtowns — need?

Cities have the power to require affordable housing in new residential and mixed-use projects. Why not do the same to ensure affordable small business in new developments in high-growth areas?

Critics will argue that this would deter new investment. But given the resiliency of small shops, doesn’t supporting them make as much sense as investing millions in public financing for massive downtown projects and sports venues?

American cities have always been in flux, responding to changes in technology, new immigrants and emerging economic opportunities. When parts of a city become nothing more than purveyors of luxury goods and expensive bars and restaurants, our streetscapes lose their rich, diverse character.

It’s time for public leaders and investors to see small shops and the active street life they foster as a basic tool in building a prosperous and creative city — more useful than glamorous boutiques, often more interesting than tall buildings, and more enduring than the latest tastes in public art and landscape architecture soon to reappear on Nicollet Mall.

 

Frank Edgerton Martin is a Minneapolis-based writer and landscape historian.