“Like No Other Market”
Okay, Boomer, Adjust to Change
In the summer of 1987 I moved into a studio apartment on West 75th Street, the second building in from Riverside Drive on the south side of the street. Walking east from that apartment I would cross West End Avenue and reach Broadway where, if I looked south, I would see Citarella’s Fish Market, the Pandemonium Boutique, Fairway Market, D’Agostino’s Supermarket, and a Candy/Cigarette-Cigar Store. When I moved back to the Upper West Side in July of 2009 that same block (between West 74th and 75th Streets on the west side of Broadway) featured Citarella’s Fish Market and Butcher Shop and Fairway Market. What had once been two “local” stores now controlled the entire block. In fact, Fairway now had an outpost on West 125th St. and was expanding into the suburbs. Soon after, Citarella’s would do the same, becoming a “gourmet market” on the Upper East Side, the West Village, Greenwich, CT. and the Hamptons (South, East, Bridge).
Last week, Fairway Market (“Like No Other Market”), announced it would be filing for bankruptcy. As reported in The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik, the original owners of Fairway had sold 80% of the business to a private equity firm in 2007 and that firm, according to Gopnik, “thought it could, so to speak, exploit the social capital --- the good will and the reputation for egalitarian excellence --- that the firm had built up over time, to vastly expand and make vastly more money.” When I taught U.S. History to high school students I used to try to drum into my students the basic reason for the “boom/bust” economic cycles we see throughout our history: over-speculation and overextension of credit. Certainly that’s what has befallen Fairway. What Gopnik’s New Yorker piece brings home, however, is how the loss of Fairway is reflective of a larger societal shift occurring before our very eyes. Interestingly, to me, was an article in the current (February 2020) issue of Sports Illustrated about challenges facing baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred, addressing the same issues. Let’s take a look.
In my world, Fairway Market and baseball occupy a similar psychic space: they are unique entities tied to my life --- from childhood through adulthood. As Gopnik notes:
Fairway is one of those odd original New York institutions that grew up organically, on the sidewalk, unlike the Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s stores that have competed with it in recent years, which were dropped down on the street from a retail empire headquartered elsewhere . . . if it were possible to award the congressional Medal of Honor to a food market, Fairway would already have won one for its service to appetite.”
(Fairway and What We Mourn in a Store by Adam Gopnik, January 25, 2020 New Yorker)
What made Fairway unique --- and what endeared it to me as my “neighborhood” market in 1987 --- was that, as Gopnik further notes, it combined “what used to be called ‘gourmet’ shopping --- with the equally strong virtues of popularity. . . the democratic energy was so extraordinary.” Fairway, if you never shopped there, did have “gourmet” features ---like Zabar’s, up the street: barrels of coffee beans, a huge selection of olives and cheeses, a fascinating butcher shop and fish counter. But you could also get your laundry detergent, canned items, and pet products in the aisles (just like D’Agostino’s next door!). There was something about the “peasant-like, sawdust-on-the-floor, ‘We’ll sell anything that sells’ commoners’ market” (Gopnik) that made the place special.
With the loss of Fairway (and all its satellites in the suburbs) we can observe a larger pattern --- what Gopnik says is “the homogenization of retailing (Whole Foods & Trader Joe’s) which is part of the homogenization of our lives.” This is not new, of course. The advent of cable/satellite television was the first huge “unifying” homogenization of our culture --- we could all watch the same shows/sports/music at the same time/same day. We watched the 24/7 news cycle emerge (with its seeds of division --- the unintended consequence only perceived by Roger Ailes, it seems). But, as Gopnik further notes:
All of us know—or, if we don’t, then capitalism is here to teach us—that things pass. . . . And yet it is, historically, such private enterprises, from coffeehouses and grocery stores to high-end department stores, with their vast common spaces, that create the social capital that supports our common life—the possibility of bumping into people with whom we share a common citizenship but don’t often share a common space or pursuit. The accumulated social capital of such spaces becomes our common life. The single man buying cheese and the family buying paper towels in bulk stand in line together.
Every imaginable historical study and set of social-science data shows that the relationship between social capital—all those institutions of common space and trust, of casual encounter and shared memory—and healthy democratic government is as neatly tied, as robustly correlated, as two things can be. So the dislocation of common spaces into the online ether, though it is doubtless capable of being resolved in surprising ways we don’t yet know, is a thing that we are right to be concerned about.
And this is where Gopnik and the New Yorker intersect with Sports Illustrated’s story about baseball. As noted in Tom Verducci’s article, Manfred’s Middle Innings:
One of the game’s greatest appeals has been the natural time and space it provides for rumination and anticipation, but those who have grown up with readily available technological distractions abhor such voids. . . (Manfred’s) biggest challenge (is) ‘the next generation --- in terms of consumption habits, both live and in media.’ What is it about potential young consumers that most worries the commissioner? ‘Their attention span . . . The idea of sitting down and watching a two-hour, 30-minute movie is different for them than it is for me. The (younger they are) the more of a challenge it is.’
Just as more and more people grocery shop online --- through AmazonFresh (Whole Foods), or Fresh Direct, or Peapod (Stop and Shop), or Instacart , et al --- sports fans, as consumers, have also changed. Last summer I attended a Yankee game with my Bronxville High School teaching partner (1987-1993) Anthony Angotta (another Boomer) and we lamented the loss of what we loved about going to the ballpark. Baseball, during our formative years, was a sport which moved along deliberately but more quickly --- batters did not step out of the batter’s box between pitches, batters did not need blaring “walk-up” music as they approached the plate, fans did not get up and down a thousand times during the game to get food and socialize, or sit talking (loudly) on their phones. You had time to watch, reflect, discuss. There was no decibel- shattering, bass-note pounding music between innings, almost totally eliminating the possibility of a conversation about the game you’ve been watching. Nobody keeps score in a program (except for a few dinosaurs, like me). Spending inning upon inning in a variety of “shops” or food venues is now the norm, not the exception. There used to be a saying that when the NY Rangers played at Madison Square Garden there was a “fight where a hockey game occasionally broke out.” After visiting the “new” Yankee Stadium I described it as an “amusement park where a baseball game happens.” As Rob Manfred notes, today’s consumer, and the consumer (of baseball) of the future, has a different attention span. Baseball’s rules are changing. Relief pitchers will have to face a minimum of three batters (if they don’t complete an inning) --- a way of short-circuiting the incessant pitching changes that sabrmetrics has brought to the game. We’ll soon have an electronic home plate umpire (not necessarily a bad thing) and, who knows, maybe the National League will adopt the designated hitter. Adam Gopnik quotes John Updike in his New Yorker article : “at any moment an old world is collapsing and a new world arising; we have better eyes for the collapse than the rise, for the old is the world we know.”
Amid the chaos of impeachment and the bankruptcy of Fairway, pitchers and catchers will report to Spring Training in 16 days, an event I always look forward to. Stepping back and surveying the landscape, I have to acknowledge that, as my sunset becomes more of a reality, Updike’s “new world arising” is here and I have to learn to accept it. Yet this new, virtual/online world is a place where “institutions of common space and trust” are being eliminated and, with it, ”healthy democratic government.” Much of what we have seen in our politics over the last decade (remember, it was the Obama campaign that recognized social media/Twitter was a powerful tool for elections and governing) has been the homogenization of a divided electorate in social media spaces. Common physical spaces are disappearing (as of 2018, 20% of Manhattan’s commercial real estate was unoccupied!). So, as Adam Gopnik concludes, “it is hard not to feel a shrivel of the heart for the loss of a place at once so specific to its city and so open to anyone with the price of a potato in her pocket, hard not to feel a tear falling in memory of grocery carts past. The price of any one store’s passing may be higher than we know.”