Why Main Street Matters

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West Marin Citizen

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My mother’s second husband was an artist. He had a small shop in Provincetown, Massachusetts, which is about as far east as Point Reyes is west (and as circus-y as West Marin strives to be low key.) Later he bought the building, which was a three-story hulk on the water, and rented apartments. I spent many hours sanding floors, painting and the like.

“The season,” as we called it, ran from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and most of our income came during those three months. People worked around the clock. I rarely went to the beach, even though it was an easy walk from our house. When the weather was bad, gloom fell over town. You saw merchants staring from their doorways out into Commercial Street, which was empty except for the rain. We ate spaghetti, which my mother’s husband hated because it reminded him of his theater days in New York.

That inner metronome has stayed with me to this day. The summer comes and I’m thinking about the shops in West Marin. Sometimes I ask merchants how the season’s going. I hope they don’t think I’m nosey, but it’s sort of in my blood.

I hear a lot of grumbling about the tourists, and how we ought to shoo them away. I could grumble too. The weekend before Martin Luther King’s birthday Point Reyes Station felt like a parking lot. The line at the Bovine was out on the sidewalk, and people deliberated endlessly over their selections as though choosing a watch at Cartier. Not long ago a guy shouted curses at me from his car because he thought I was vacating a parking space when I was only putting something into the trunk.

Real honeys. But then I think about the merchants whose days are brightened by the crowds – and by the balmy winter weather that brings them. Their business is ours too, in a way, because no visitors would mean no Main Street, or at least a greatly diminished one. We locals don’t provide enough business on our own. Even the motorcycle fantasists, with their tony leathers, rich-boy bikes, and lack of basic courtesy on the road, help to keep the Bovine here for the rest of us; and that’s true for the Pelican Inn, Sand Dollar, Coast Café, Olema Inn, Priscilla’s, Tony’s, Diekmanns, Ranch Nicasio, Lagunitas Deli, Two Bird…

This isn’t just about scones and almohadas either (though that might be enough.) Many merchants give generously to local causes. Where did we watch the inauguration? At Toby’s Feed Barn and the Bovine, which had a laptop on the counter. (We are running out of ways to say, “Thank you,” Chris and Bridget.) More, the local shops, and the street life they engender, provide the setting for the serendipitous encounters and conviviality that help to make us a community.

And besides, does anyone really think the federal government paid for the new wetlands, and the park generally, to provide a private viewscape for the fortunately situated – namely, ourselves? The tourists are coming. Our merchants need them, as does the social ecology of Main Street. The challenge is to lessen the impacts, and prevent the town from being swallowed by them, the way P’town was back East.

That story is instructive. P’town tipped in part because the local fishing industry dried up. You used to see the Portuguese fishermen walking barefoot down Commercial Street in winter. The fleet had 60 boats at its peak. Now it’s mainly a sad assemblage of rusting hulks. The annual “Blessing of the Fleet,” which was a counterpart of our Western Weekend, has been renamed the Portuguese Festival. It’s a tourist show with little by way of boats or fish.

This is another reason to support our local ranchers, and those who make their living from land and sea. They provide an economic counterweight to the tourist trade – a basis for an authentic local economy that is not based just on moneyed visitors or monthly checks from investment funds.

We also need to support our local merchants ourselves. I read someplace that 25 percent of small businesses are likely to fail in the foreseeable future. I forget if that was in Marin County, the whole state or what, but it doesn’t really matter. We all know times are tough. If we want a thriving Main Street, and if we don’t want to have to drive to Novato every time we need a saw blade or some fish, then we had better make an extra effort to do our shopping here in town.

Most of us aren’t going to stop using Target and Trader Joe’s, especially those with families. But we can keep a portion of our buying local without a great deal of pain. Factor in the time and gas, and the price difference usually isn’t that much to begin with. (I have found it’s often not so great, period.)

Factor in the community, and it’s a bargain that even Target can’t match.

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