|Joe Fox, meanwhile, has given up quoting "The Godfather" and now speaks almost exclusively in lines from "Avatar." Standing in the deserted lobby of his giant store, he quips, "Everything is backwards now, like out there is the true world, and in here is the dream." A few days later, Fox & Sons files Chapter 11 and is shuttered.
But in the end the Foxes sell Joe's yacht and use the money to reopen The Shop Around the Corner, which now has a coffee bar and free Wi-Fi. Profits are modest, but the couple lives happily ever after because sales, while too small to sustain the big-box store, are just right for the needs of a hard-working, book-loving, Internet-addicted couple.
And the moral of the story is one few would have guessed: The Internet might save Main Street.
OK, maybe "save" is overstating it. But there is evidence that in some categories—books, and perhaps also video, electronics and toys—when giant chain stores go under, the door is reopened for the very locally operated independents they knocked out a decade or two ago.
The book business provides a particularly vivid example, because the big players like Borders and Barnes & Noble are being clobbered by Internet sales, via companies such as Amazon, as well as by online delivery of e-books. But few observers—even the most aggressive supporters of the digital frontier—are prepared to write off the segment of book buyers who will, for the foreseeable future, prefer to purchase books printed on paper in a retail setting that is more likely located on Main Street than at the mall.
New York Magazine recently reported on the success of 13 small, independent bookstores, noting that five just recently opened, boosted by "the local-is-better ethos, which has bled over from the culinary and fashion worlds."
And there's plenty of supporting anecdotal evidence in other fields as well. For example, the closing of Circuit City's stores has led to the rebirth of local, hands-on electronics shops. The bankruptcy of K.B. Toys has allowed some local toy merchants to sneak back in. The fast-fading fortunes of Hollywood Video and Blockbuster have been blessings for neighborhood video stores like the one owned by Tom Tavares in Fall River, Mass. "We just concentrate on making people happy," he told the Herald News newspaper. "We're not looking to get rich."
That's probably a healthy perspective, because as video and books go increasingly digital and more shoppers go online, the crumbs left behind are not much to build on and won't last forever. But it's fascinating to watch the pendulum swing.
In the music industry, for instance, where digital sales now account for over 40% of the U.S. business, sales of LPs and vinyl albums grew by a surprising 33% last year—with much of the traffic in small, neighborhood shops.
So, if you're thinking of opening a store on Main Street, what's your best bet? The fastest growing online categories include: consumer electronics; sports and fitness; jewelry and watches; computers; home and garden; music and movies. It's a good bet that those are fields in which superstores will founder, allowing mom and pop to get back in business.
In the movie sequel, as the credits roll, Kathleen might text Joe: "Sold two books this morning to a sweet older gentleman from the Upper West Side. Said he's never seen a Kindle and hopes he never does. I think he'll be a regular customer :)"
(c) Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Wall Street Journal.