Michael Moynihan: Support your local businesses instead of commercial monsters

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“The San Francisco of my youth was full of small shops whose friendly eccentricity felt like part of the place. Some of them still exist but they’re rarer now … The exchanges between people who knew one another were non-commodities these small businesses offered along with whatever was for sale.” 

 The above is from a terrific long feature Rebecca Solnit published in the London Review of Books a couple of months back.

Something which caught my eye about Solnit’s piece — one of the best I’ve read in a long time — is the way it pulls together so many of our vague misgivings about life right now. Those misgivings may be various, but she certainly threads their connections.

Then there’s the sheer applicability. There can be a tendency to see somewhere like San Francisco as a laboratory where modern ills are first incubated — lack of affordable accommodation, huge homelessness, addiction, tech overreach — before they combine, creating a toxic mixture which then spreads everywhere else.

A glance through Solnit’s account of San Francisco’s challenges proved unnerving, however. The afflictions of northern California are not on the way. They’re not issues we need to be aware of in advance. They’re already here.

Take a recent headline which probably caught your eye, about Amazon setting up a specifically Irish outlet: San Francisco shows you what happens when Amazon happens.

“There is an underlying assumption that each of us aspires to be as productive as possible, and that stripping away everything seen to interfere with productivity is a good thing,” writes Solnit. “This was the pitch made by many new companies in the 1990s, when online shopping and other digital financial transactions first became a big deal.

“The shift has reshaped cityscapes as well as psyches. The American Booksellers Association reported that in 2021 alone, ‘the movement of dollars to Amazon and away from retailers displaced 136,000 shops occupying 1.1 billion square feet of traditional commercial space.’ That’s a lot of local jobs and relationships both to places and people.” 

Retail nightmare

Sound familiar? This is as true of Cork as it is of anywhere else. Ellen O’Regan wrote here last year about the Cork family businesses which are already disappearing for various reasons, ranging from the cost of living crisis to lack of interest among the newer generations.

Liam Ruiséal Bookshop on Oliver Plunkett St, Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane.
Liam Ruiséal Bookshop on Oliver Plunkett St, Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane.

One of the businesses which vanished included one of the country’s oldest independent bookshops, Liam Ruiséal’s. It closed in 2018 “only a year after the family celebrated a century of doing business in Cork city. The family cited competition from online retailers and larger chains, as well as the economic downturn, as challenges that were too difficult to overcome”.

 What will happen to other small-scale businesses all over Ireland when the Amazon behemoth turns its eyes fully on us?

Homelessness

Take another long-standing challenge to Cork and other cities, one which Eoin English and others have written about here: homelessness.

Solnit gives the California perspective: “Many unhoused people are employed, are parents, are seniors, are students (including 2,370 of the children enrolled in San Francisco public schools in 2022) or otherwise quotidian citizens.

“Illness and addiction are often the consequences, rather than the causes, of the devastating precarity, shame and stress of being unhoused.

“Market-rate housing is out of reach for a great many people, working or not, which has made finding employees for lower-wage jobs in retail, restaurants and vital services difficult for local employers.” 

Sound familiar? Last year Eoin wrote here about Cork Simon’s experiences in dealing with homelessness on Leeside. The organisation’s chief executive Dermot Kavanagh told him “… the charity has begun to see more and more homeless people in work, sometimes in full-time jobs, but who cannot find somewhere affordable to live”.

Gig economy

 When it comes to other vagaries of work, Solnit quoted San Francisco worker Andrew Callaway’s perspective on working in the gig economy.

Or as he put it, the “exploitation economy”, describing it as “just as unhealthy and dehumanising for the customers as it is for the workers … You never even have to see the person who is cleaning your house or your clothes. Plenty of people requested that I drop off their food at the door. Customers grow to love apps that make the worker anonymous”.

 Sound familiar? Emer Walsh wrote here in February about Irish delivery workers striking on “Valentine’s evening, one of the most profitable nights for gig workers, joining protestors worldwide to draw attention to low pay along with insecure and often, dangerous conditions.” This is where the doom loop narrative kicks in about San Francisco specifically because of its reputation as a tech hub. For all the good done by technological innovation, some of the ideas born on America’s west coast grow up to become devouring monsters.

Housing crisis

Take Airbnb, based in San Francisco, which Solnit says “ … has undermined neighbourhoods around the world, from major cities to rural communities, by turning long-term housing, where people had roots and relationships, into short-term rentals, often jacking up the price of housing at the same time”.

 Sound familiar? Tadgh McNally wrote here about this very phenomenon last year: “In Cork city, the ratio of rental properties to short-term lets is smaller, with 40 properties available to rent compared to 181 Airbnbs. However, outside the city there are over 1,418 Airbnbs available to let compared to just 34 rental properties on Daft.” 

Towards the end of her piece Solnit muses on other consequences arising from tech arrogance, finding the ideal representation of that attitude in cryptocurrency.

She describes it as “being promoted as a means of escaping whatever control nation states have over their residents’ financial transactions, a libertarian privacy currency with almost no safeguards. Some have grown rich on it; others have lost their life savings.” 

Sound familiar? Last November Steven Heaney wrote here about gardaí in Waterford dealing with a case in which they “seized an estimated €1.12m in cryptocurrency, frozen funds worth €30,000, seized two vehicles — a Volkswagen Golf and a Mercedes — and seized a property in Dubai.” 

I’m aware of the ironies involved here, don’t worry.

You may be reading this piece on your phone thanks to a Google alert, for instance.

If you go looking for Rebecca Solnit’s piece itself it’s far more likely that you’ll encounter in in online form, rather than the ink-and-paper LRB itself.

You may use online shopping facilities now as a matter of routine and convenience. The same for Airbnb. I do the same myself.

Is it enough to be aware of the contradictions in one’s own behaviour, to have the good grace to at least feel a little grubby as you click on a purchase?

Perhaps.

But you don’t need to conduct your entire commercial life through a phone or laptop either.

You can get out and support local businesses. You can help homeless charities. You can avoid the stupidity of the online world by engaging in the reality available to you in Cork and elsewhere.

And experience the friendly eccentricity Solnit rightly celebrates.

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