Shop Talk: Shopper’s Delight

So how good is Philly’s shopping scene really? A transplanted New Yorker says we’re better than we think — and poised for something big. Credit cards ready?

There went the department stores.

Then Casual Friday (and, perhaps, the proliferation of uninspiring chains like Men’s Wearhouse) wiped out the need for gentlemen’s stores — and with it, any collective sense of men’s style. (Where are Philly men even finding pleated khakis these days?)

There went the men’s stores.

In their place came the dollar stores. And the junk shops. And the cell phone huts.

Moving Ahead
And so when the city’s ever-buzzed-about “revival” began within the past decade, shopping wasn’t the first facet of city life to be revived; there simply wasn’t that much to resuscitate. Instead, the buzz was about the cleaning-up of Center City. The dip in crime. The arts and history and art and architecture. The restaurant scene. And the condo boom.

As these factors started to fall into place, savvy independent business owners saw an opportunity to ride the early wave of change in up-and-coming neighborhoods like Old City, while rents were still low. That’s how my favorite stores came to be. January Bartle opened Third Street Habit at 3rd and Race, she says, because in 2004, she simply couldn’t afford to open up on 18th and Sansom or 20th and Walnut. She sees Bella Vista offering similar opportunities now, and neighborhoods like Northern Liberties and South Philly have become nurturing environments for the next round of independent boutiques.

All of that is great. But now that Philly’s passed the “cusp” stage and indicators of the city’s vitality — most notably, wealthy empty nesters infiltrating the city and upwardly mobile young families sticking around — have been secured, I’d argue that it’s time for shopping here to go to the next level, to have its place in the Philly sun. There are encouraging signs. Our malls are thriving. But in my mind, there’s no excuse for the country’s fifth-largest city not to have a seriously competitive Main Drag. It’s simply the next logical step in the recent and thrilling evolution of our city, of any major city. It’s the missing piece.