Independent retailers anchor, engage

The shops lining Cedar Avenue pride themselves as community strongholds.

A multitude of West Bank’s nooks and crannies are filled with independently owned specialty retailers as historically rich as the neighborhood itself. While some shops filter in and out with fluctuating demographics, a few have established themselves as community anchors, prevailing over economic hardship and shifting community cultures.

I began my exploration of the West Bank shopping scene on Cedar Avenue, a few hops from the Carlson School of Management.

There, Global Village, a showcase of intricate culture and design, has anchored the neighborhood since 1971. When we first met, co-owner and full-time employee Marcia Keegan was cleaning the stores windows and held the door for me as I wandered inside.

The walls of the space are lined with everything imaginable: from masks and beaded necklaces to fine Indian fabric and handmade earrings. Shanti, Keegan’s two-year-old gray and white Great Dane, greets me, tongue hanging out, tail wagging.

Keegan describes the store’s selection as “cottage crafts from around the world.” Once a year, she treks across the globe to India, Nepal, Indonesia and Thailand to “bring culture home” to the West Bank.

Since Keegan personally travels to purchase from families and specific dealers, she maintains close relationships with the craftsmen in each country. Almost all items in Global Village are handmade and retain their traditional cultural value. Keegan travels not only to shop in large flea markets, but also to continue strengthening her ties with the artisans.

For more than 30 years, the store has become a support center for the community. When the post office on the West Bank shut down, Keegan and Global Village took to selling stamps for the West Bank residents, another way the store has become an integral part of the neighborhood’s development.

The neighborhood’s Somali residents frequent Global Village to purchase handmade fabric from India. At first, many of the neighborhood’s inhabitants feared Shanti, but Keegan says that once they’ve become acquainted with her, she’s become as much an attraction as anything the store sells.

Keegan notes the loyalty of not only the customers, but also the employees of Global Village. “Most employees,” says Keegan, “are students that work all four years of schooling” and return later to show their children the store.

Keegan believes that all the West Bank needs is a face-lift and a paint job. She says, “The Cedar Cultural Center has the most vibrant music Ö and Chai’s serves such delicious Thai food.” The stores are already historically significant, and she shies from encouraging the neighborhood’s gentrification, something that she feels might undermine the neighborhood’s rich history.

Across the street, Depth of Field, a specialty retail space dedicated to yarn, decorative pillows, futons and furniture covers, has occupied their current space for just six months longer than Global Village, beginning in 1970.

The store receives mostly traffic from their frequented Web page. Manager Elizabeth Sterk says the Depth of Field’s patronage “is mostly made up of those who have already heard of us Ö people who bought a futon here 20 years ago and are back for a replacement.” Depth of Field stocks products from a variety of vendors including local manufacturers Strata Furniture and SIS Enterprises.

The yarn store focuses on quality of service and product to maintain its loyal customer base.

One of the store’s major sources of community involvement is the assortment of classes it offers in knitting and weaving.

I continue strolling down Cedar toward campus. Under a line of blue canopies, windows displaying kayaks and climbing gear dominate the presentation of a single storefront. Midwest Mountaineering, a store that Keegan cites as another neighborhood anchor, has been in business since 1970 but moved to its current location in 1976.

The store is what manager Ed Benites feels is a rarity: “a larger independent outdoor retailer in an urban area.” Midwest Mountaineering was voted in the top 25 outdoor stores by Outdoor Business magazine in 2007.

Benites says that most customers come from around the surrounding area for outdoor supplies, while many students and West Bank inhabitants shop upstairs at Thrifty Outfitters, a part of Midwest Mountaineering that sells closeouts and used gear for adventurous people on a budget.

Midwest Mountaineering engages with the West Bank community through education and deals on gear in their “Outdoor Adventure Expo,” when 70 vendors and companies inhabit massive tents behind the store to offer outdoor advice, deals on equipment and more scholarly lectures on topics like how to plan trips to the boundary waters or safe ways for beginner hiking.

Around the corner, tucked in a nook under Midwest Mountaineering and The Hub Bike Co-op, May Day Books boasts a similar theory. May Day is a nonprofit organization that sells progressive literature and left-wing education materials in an attempt to bring what manager Craig Palmer calls, “positive change to the existing system.” All books are sold 15 percent below cover price to encourage interest in politics.

The book store boasts everything from history books that teach what “you probably won’t learn about in school” to political newspapers and magazines.

Palmer, who has worked in the bookstore since its conception in 1990, says that students are “under too much pressure and don’t have the time to really think” about social issues facing their generation. May Day offers an outlet for the exploration of capitalism, job security, war, race and gender relations and “suggested solutions to the world’s existing problems.”

The anchoring stores on Cedar Avenue have suffered through dips in the economy and changes in the neighborhood’s demographics. Over the years, they remain loyal to the community surrounding them and each store feels compelled to reach out to West Bank residents and members of the surrounding community. Each shop receives most traffic from returning patrons or friends of existing customers and all stores boast knowledgeable staff and friendly environments. Keegan feels that students need to explore the West Bank with a renewed sense of vigor and excitement and to fully engage in the neighborhood’s rejuvenation.