To visit Philadelphia’s Joseph Fox Bookshop in the last two weeks of January was to attend a wake.
Tucked away on a narrow one-way street in the heart of Center City, the 71-year-old institution held a special magic. Its neatly curated selection of hip novels, architectural tomes, and children’s literature was framed by pleasantly tasteful interior decor and soothing lighting. Everyone behind the counter knew their stuff and would gladly recommend a gift, even if you were only half-sure about the recipient’s favorite novel.
So when rumors began to spread on Twitter that the beloved staple might soon close, a story soon confirmed by the Philadelphia Inquirer, the reaction was dramatic.
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“I wasn’t prepared for the outpouring of emotion,” says Michael Fox, 69, whose father opened the shop in 1951. “People were crying outside the book store, people were bringing us presents and food. There’s been this extraordinary outpouring of affection and sadness.”
Joseph Fox was thronged in those last weeks of business, its narrow rowhouse confines bursting with grieving loyalists. While locals mourned for one Philadelphia icon, however, there were also dark murmurings about a potentially much greater malady.
Is Center City experiencing a retail meltdown? Nearly two years into the era of remote work, are Philadelphia’s downtown, and other central business districts around the country, finally collapsing? The relatively high-end commercial corridors of Walnut and Chestnut streets—both hit hard by the shutdown and looting and property destruction in 2020—are still pocked with vacancies. Their counterparts on Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road, Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, and Manhattan’s SoHo all saw vacancy rates of 20 percent or higher in 2021.
“Walnut Street used to be this vibrant, thriving, amazing community of stores, all these big chain clothing stores—and they’re just not reopening,” says Fox. “At six o’clock when we close, there’s no one on the street. That’s a real indication that something changed. People are not in town, they aren’t working.”
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This is very specifically a downtown problem. At the macro level, the national retail market is proving resilient two years into the pandemic, with many of its weaker performers already culled by the “retail apocalypse” of 2018 and 2019. For the first time since 2014, the real estate analytics company CoStar Group tracked more store openings than closings last year.
Buoyed by unprecedented amounts of federal support for households and businesses in 2020 and early 2021, paired with increased savings due to inactivity earlier in the pandemic, Americans pounded down the doors of national retailers last year.
“Retail sales blew through the roof at a much higher rate than we would have ever expected and consumption hit all-time highs,” says Brandon Svec, national director of U.S. retail analytics with the CoStar Group. “The consumer was unleashed back into the world with vaccines in their arms and a couple extra trillion dollars in their bank accounts.”
That larger truth obscures inequities. The booming metropolitan areas of the Southeast and Southwest are outperforming more stagnant counterparts in the Northeast and Midwest. Rural regions continue to suffer from a dearth of retail activity, while suburbs are outperforming urban cores especially in older, denser cities like Philadelphia.
Michael Fox isn’t imagining things when he laments reduced foot traffic and boarded up storefronts. By the count of Philadelphia’s Center City District, a third of downtown consumers are still absent. In 2019, an average of 428,000 people walked the streets of central Philadelphia every day. In 2021, there were only 267,000—a gap almost entirely explained by the continued prevalence of remote work.
Link to the rest at Slate