A few weeks ago, there was an article in one of the U.S. newspapers about old big box bookstores i.e. Barnes and Noble’s stores being converted into other uses. In a forum that I follow, someone suggested someone should write about a book about this, and someone else pointed out that it had been done — Julia Christensen wrote “Big Box Reuse” back in 2008.
The idea fascinates me for a number of reasons. Initially, the article interested me because I follow the rise and fall of various aspects of the book business — from brick and mortar stores to digital e-books to wax and waning aspects of public libraries. And with so many of the bookstores with large overhead and full retail pricing losing out in the U.S. in particular to the ubiquitous options of Amazon, there are lots of bookstores closing. Not as gentle a world as the “You’ve Got Mail” scenario of romantic small bookstore owner against the big box store retailer nearby, more like economic crushing by a faceless entity that can literally financially obliterate you by drone.
Secondly, I have a passing interest from a business operations side. I am fascinated not only by what some people think will be a functional, well-earning business (i.e. fancy sock stores); what will function in a specific environment (i.e. non-franchise coffee shops opening in the SAME location that three other coffee shops have failed previously — do the new people figure that they can survive on a 1% savings on supplies?); or businesses that seem to do most things right but just fail to connect (i.e. thousands of restaurants every year).
Finally, I’m attracted to stories of economic revival, particularly for downtown areas, but also in areas where a strip mall loses its main anchor and what happens to the store after that event. I’ve seen a couple of malls where it has lost a big anchor, and I thought, “Oops, that one is going to die”, only for it to attract another anchor store and keep going. And then lose that one, prompting a similar expectation from me, and yet they find either a third store or go in a different direction yet continue. I’m also fascinated by the small stores that remain in the same malls and how they can possibly remain open with such little foot traffic.
So the book attracted my attention, and lo and behold!, it was available for free through the public library. How could I say no?
The intro is mostly about introducing some of the concepts for the rest of the book. First and foremost is the identification of what constitutes “reuse”. While there are multiple elements discussed, for me, I like the idea of “reclamation” and the process of change i.e. it was used for one purpose initially, then there is a definite dormancy period, and then there is a new function. The example I gave above where a mall keeps attracting other big box stores to try their luck isn’t really the same type of reuse she envisions.
I also like the idea that box stores tend to be utilitarian in design — you can usually tell what the store was previously just by the design. Similar to restaurant chains too, you often see an empty one and can immediately think, “Oh, that used to be a McDonald’s”. But it also means they are also quite bland once the logos and stuff are removed — after all, it WAS a “box” store.
I confess I’m a bit disappointed too with the scope of the book in two areas. In designing the case studies, she focused on K-Mart and Walmart stores only. While that allows for identification of some common factors, it also limits the study/book to only looking at stores with very specific styles of footprints — literally a large one-story box with a large parking lot.
I’m only a chapter in, but the book also seems to be lacking much in the way of other context. It isn’t just stores that are being converted…entire neighbourhoods are going from factories to residential, for example. And how do historic buildings fit into the equation when someone converts an old house in the downtown core into a doctor’s office? The issues are quite different, but are they similar in category? Hard to see the parallels without the broader context. I’d especially like to see comparators with historic buildings being adapted into residential or commercial space, and with conversions of schools and churches.
When approaching the book, I hadn’t given much thought to the definitional challenge of “what is a big box store?”. It seemed relatively obvious. Except the definition depends not on some national or international definition of square footage, layout or sales, but on local ordinances. I was also expecting it to be mostly abandoned buildings when stores closed…I didn’t expect it to be about stores closing because it was so successful that it “expanded” nearby with a whole new store, leaving the old building an empty shell (because it was cheaper to build a whole new separate store than shut down the old one temporarily during renovations).
Chapter 1 – Bardstown, Kentucky
I feel cheated by the first case study. The basic premise is that it is a historic old town, and Walmart located on one side of it. Then they abandoned that building to open in a new larger building on the other side of town. And not for nothing, did so again farther out with a huge superstore. But it isn’t really about two abandoned buildings finding other uses.
In the first instance, the courthouse relocated to the site, which sounds kind of odd and she references the weirdness of “corporate justice” trickling down. But it’s based on rhetoric more than reality. She does a great job of describing how the local town is so protective of its Kentucky heritage, and deep almost philosophical discussions about how to handle moving the courthouse. But in the end, all they are doing is moving to the space — they razed the building and built a new courthouse. That is not reuse in any fashion that has anything to do with the Walmart that was there before, all it really is about is the location of land close to the city and outside the downtown core. And while it suggests that it is all historic across from the old Kentucky home plantation, Google Streetview shows the reality — it’s next to a cheap stripmall with hair salons, tanning beds, a small credit union, etc, across from a McDonald’s and next to a bunch of small residential areas. It’s a far cry from a protected heritage site of Colonial history.
What I did find interesting is how the local city council learned from their earlier dealings with Walmart. When they built the first one, there were no real restrictions placed on what could be done with the old building. Similarly for the second one. But for the third one, they put limits on the construction that would allow for easier adaptation in the future if it ends up empty — more doors so that it could be subdivided into multiple stores, and a requirement for Walmart to tear it down if it sits empty and unused for a certain number of years. I’ll be curious to see what future chapters have as “civic lessons learned”.