Provo Post 3: Bookstores, Art Galleries and Other Unsustainable Ideas

Here’s the short version of this post: As much as we’d all like downtown Provo to be filled with cool art galleries, bistros, cafes, bookstores and other stuff (that’s definitely what I want, at least), I believe it’s currently premature to focus much energy on cultivating new establishments in that vein. Downtown probably has as many (or more, maybe) of these types of businesses as it can sustain.
Here’s the longer version:

My desire to blog about Provo was kicked started by a recent survey the city conducted. As most people in Provo (should) know, the city is trying to revitalize the downtown area, and the survey focused on what people want. Here’s a quote from the comments section:

“New small biz retail, unique eats, urban living space, cafe’s and bookstores,

cultural events and artspace, independent film house and sundance film festival venue”

And another:

“I would love to see a chain restaurant where Los Hermanos was evicted from

(like Olive Garden) and a good bookstore such as Barnes and Noble or Borders. “

I pulled these two comments because the both mention bookstores, which was a recurring theme in the survey.

First off, I find these comments ironic because until very recently, downtown Provo had two bookstores. Also, a new bookstore just barely opened up on Center Street. But aside from betraying a lack of familiarity with downtown Provo (why are you taking the survey if you don’t even know what stores are there?), the comments reveal that a lot of people want downtown to be an exiting, cosmopolitan, urbane place. In addition to the comments about bookstores, I’ve heard/read people frequently express a desire to have more art galleries, cool restaurants/cafes, unique retailers, and other fun businesses.
I count myself among those who would like to see Provo filled with that kind of business. But after living in Provo for eight continuous years, I have become convinced that a downtown filled with these kinds of businesses is currently unsustainable. Why? Well, most obviously, because they keep opening, and almost as fast they keep closing.
But beside that, downtown Provo already seems to have reached it’s saturation point with regard to cool businesses. There are a bunch of restaurants. A couple of (or three) great music venues. Two bars. Every once in a while a new consumer business will open (Gloria’s Little Italy, for example) but surprisingly often these new businesses are merely filling a niche that was only recently vacated. (Ottavio’s closed shortly before Gloria’s opened, for example. Similarly, a new night club is planned for downtown, which will fill the niche recently vacated by the closure of Atchafalaya.)
Relatedly, there seems to be little or no market for some kinds of businesses. Bookstores are cool and I’d love to sit around sipping fancy drinks and reading newspapers in them, but the reality is that they’re going the way of the dinosaur. Even big box chains are not immune to this. The reality is that not a lot of people buy books, and those who do increasingly use the internet to get them.
“Small biz”, to quote from the survey comment above, has a similar problem. There have been — and still are to a lesser extent — very unique retailers in downtown Provo. For example, I occasionally purchased clothing from Coal Umbrella and Mode Boutique. So did a lot of people. But it wasn’t enough to keep these places in business. Things like art galleries seem to have even more trouble. Every time a new one opens up I get really excited, and every time one closes I get a depressed. Can’t we just all choose to patronize awesome places, and then Provo will finally be really cool?
Unfortunately, no. A few committed people just don’t have the money, time and resources to do that. Wanting people to patronize cool businesses is not enough. I, my friends, and people like me can’t afford to constantly buy things at galleries, eat at nice restaurants, etc. Also, telling people to patronize cool businesses is not enough. I remember casually overhearing someone at the old Sego Gallery complain that people just weren’t supportive enough of the arts. I agree, but complaining about it won’t change that fact. Behavior is rarely changed by exhorting — it’s changed by incentivizing.
Ultimately, I think this is a good illustration of what I was talking about in my last post: population density. I think the ulimate thing we need in downtown Provo are more consumers. Sure, broad cultural changes can and should take place. People in Provo should become more supportive of independent businesses, local artisans, and the arts generally. But those changes will take time and will likely not come soon enough to adequately sustain what we currently have, or inspire new ideas.
So, while I laud individual efforts to start new businesses in downtown Provo, as I think about the larger efforts I believe we (individuals, entrepreneurs, the city, etc.) ought to focus on increasing demand for a revitalized downtown, not on increasing the supply of things in downtown. After all, supply without demand in downtown Provo (e.g. real estate and commercial space) is what gave us the relative ghost town we have today.


Filed under Downtown, Provo, utah

2 responses to “Provo Post 3: Bookstores, Art Galleries and Other Unsustainable Ideas

  1. After having lived in Provo off and on since 1960 as a child, college student and young married, I have seen Provo morph. I think you have hit the nail very hard on the head Jim. And I still think they need a good "old fashioned" movie theater.

  2. I agree with you, Jim. One thing that would increase demand would be to create businesses with products that can't be replicated on the internet—businesses with the central selling point of being "live." This is why I think Velour has stuck. You can't replicate that experience on the internet.I don't know how to do it, but I'd like to see a business that primarily promotes locality and face-to-face conversation. I can't think of how that would be marketable, but that is a product that the internet will never be able to fully replicate.

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