Sunday, November 23, 2008

Cafés: Another canary in the economic coalmine

Ah, France. The verdant fields covered with vineyards, wheat, and cattle. The castles and churches. And in the cities, culture as vibrant as the countryside. Especially those cafés and bistros.

About 78% fewer cafés now than in 1960, according to an article in today's print edition of the NYT. From a peak of 200,000 there are only about 44,000 left. And the current slump has put the remaining shops on tenterhooks. It's gotten so bad that some shops have dropped the price for coffee down to just €1 (about $1.25 US) -- and still no one's buying. And we're not talking about corporate giants like Starbucks ™ or McDonalds ™ but mom and pop shops, the independent places that give both town and country their unique characters, not to mention the numerous neighbourhoods in Paris. It's not just France. Across the EU, and here in North America, some long time favourites have disappeared in favour of cookie cutter establishments and even they're in trouble.

Not that I have a vendetta against Starbucks, but when was the last time you saw a struggling artist perform there?

How truly sad that when times are tough, many of the places where the greatest ideas are fostered are the first to go. Theatres, art movie houses, nightclubs. It makes one wonder if while the right may have lost the battle of economic ideas they have won the war on culture.

The greatest acts of our time got their start in nightclubs and busking on the streets. Then some idiots thought we'd rather listen to boy and girl bands and gave DJs the shakedown to make sure they got airplay and the music industry was turned totally upside down. Imagine how much better, more wholesome, more innovative, the music industry would be if we never heard of Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, the Spice Girls, Michael Bublé (yes, him -- it's my right not to like his music any more than I don't like Don Cherry's Saturday night rantings) and instead we heard more of the independents.

And of course, let's not forget, the first installment of the most successful books of our time, Harry Potter, was mostly written in a coffee shop in Edinburgh.

No, I'm not arguing for mass subsidies for the small guy. What I am saying is that people should every so often try one of the little guys rather than just going to Timmy's or Dunkin or Starbucks by habit. If they're not able to survive, then there isn't much chance for other small retail outlets either.

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