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Neighbor-Stores

Submitted by Editor on April 14, 2010 – 1:44 am | Print or Email »8 Comments

by Mike Paulus
illustration by Beth Czech
(originally published in Volume One)

So I was out for jovial walk with the family (a romp, if you will) the other evening, and while we were merrily strolling through the neighborhood (as we often do), I was struck (as I often am) by an all-encompassing urge. I wanted a tasty coffee-based beverage. Unfortunately, we were upon foot, and the nearest coffee shops would have required either a) a short drive or b) a much longer walk involving the traversal of busy roads.

This sucked.

My wife commented on how much she wished there was a coffee shop or a market or a café or a hardware store located right within the neighborhood, right amongst a row of houses – a neighbor-store. The location would help us to walk more while conveniently cutting down on travel time, and if that business was located in a converted house, it would even be a cool place to just hang out.

In our neighborhood, there are a number of buildings that used to house businesses. A few of them still do. Within a few blocks of our house there’s a building that used to be Timm’s Dairy – a corner market that went out of business within the past few years. This makes me sad. (Sure, I don’t have a solitary tear running down my cheek right now, but I bet I could make it happen if I tried.)

Eau Claire’s older neighborhoods are peppered with these little buildings, but fewer and fewer actually house a business. Little shops and markets just don’t exist in the middle (or even on the edges) of neighborhoods anymore. So what’s up with these neighbor-stores, and why don’t we see more of them?

The “why don’t we see more of them” question is easy to answer – we stopped supporting them. People decided they’d rather drive someplace with cheaper prices and a wider range of things to buy, consolidating their shopping trips. And nowadays places like Wal-Mart offer you groceries along with clothing and motor oil and camping equipment and bicycles made in China. So who gives a crap about the corner market?

The “what’s up with these neighbor-stores” question is slightly more complicated. How does one figure out what’s up? If you’re like me, you call Thomas Reiter, Project Coordinator for Eau Claire’s Department of Community Development. He says that, in most cases, these properties held businesses prior to current zoning laws (a few of them since the early 1900’s), and have been granted special status. Almost all of Eau Claire’s neighborhoods are zoned for residential-only use (exceptions would be places like Downtown where upper floor living space is allowed), so the only chance someone has of starting a neighborhood store is to acquire one of these properties.

And here’s the kicker: if these unique properties remain vacant for 12 months, they lose their special zoning. To quote myself, that sucks. With a law like this in place, the dream of a truly walkable community disappears. I have no idea if it’s possible to change this law, but I’m sure it would require a Herculean team of expert pencil pushers.

Reiter says that, over the past two decades, Eau Claire’s neighbor-stores have almost all been torn down to make way for housing. He also says he gets a few calls a year from people looking to start a coffee shop or similar business in their home. Unfortunately, Reiter has to shut them down. He says the zoning laws are in place to preserve a neighborhood’s identity, and in most cases, I can see his point. I’d hate the see Old Navy buy a quaint bungalow a block from my house and convert it into a suburban-themed capri pants outlet.

But what about shops and stores that can really serve a neighborhood, like a market or a coffee shop or a hardware store or a market/coffee shop/hardware store? As I’m thinking more about the gas it takes to go get a fancy-schmancy coffee drink, or a head of lettuce, or a six (by “six” I mean “30”) pack of beer, it makes less and less sense to drive. But unless some neighborhood kids set up an iced mocha/romaine/beer stand on the street corner, most of us are gonna climb into the car (or the bus) and burn some fossil fuel. And the price of that beer goes up with every mile between us and the supermarket.

I’m not even sure what my point is here, because I can’t magically rezone the house down the street with my magic rezoning wand (it’s really just for show). Reiter says I’d need to get the whole damn neighborhood rezoned, and the only way to do that is to get a consensus from all property owners in the zone. That seems kind of unlikely.

I don’t have any solutions to these problems. Maybe one of you readers out there does. I guess, for now, we need to focus on the existing neighbor-stores out there and the people trying to run a business on that kind of property. See if you can help them out – their store is business space worth preserving.

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8 Comments »

  • Jamie says:

    Timm’s Dairy was closed before we moved into the neighborhood. I often think about how great it’d be if it was still open. I didn’t realize the special zoning is revoked after a year of vacancy. Dang, start a petition, I’ll sign!

  • Linda says:

    I totally agree about not wanting to cross “the great divide” commonly known as Hastings Way, but what about heading in the opposite direction for your steaming java and either support the Acoustic Cafe or the 420 Internet Cafe’? Granted, both would necessitate an uphill return, but hey, we live on the East Side HILL, the exercise is good for you, and it would be caffeine-assisted.

  • traci says:

    I’m so with you guys. I often think about how nice it would be to have an ice cream cone or coffee. I’m not sure what we could do either other than make the ice cream cart and drive around selling coffee. Boy would that be a sight! I too will sign a petition going. I would love to see something move into the old Timm’s Dairy Store. It could be a coffee house/ice cream/sweets shop, maybe a lil drink poo stuff too. Who knows? I’m formulating an idea even as we speak!

  • Nick M. says:

    I’ve always thought it would be cool to use that Timm’s dairy space again too, for a coffee/ice cream shop, making sure to use the surrounding lawn and generous sidewalk for a robust outdoor seating area. Perhaps encased in a tall wrought iron fence or something covered in vines. Something to create some separation from Margaret street, but still know you’re on the street. Could become an amazing centralized neighborhood hangout.

    AND, every time I drive by or visit Nelson’s I curse them for not using that huge paved area immediately northwest of their building for the same sort of thing. Tons of space to create some seating. Then people could actually eat THERE. I guarantee it would increase their business by at least 25%.

  • Maria says:

    I love this article. I am new to Eau Claire and the neighborhood and am so disappointed to learn about the current zoning laws in place (except in the case that an Old Navy would set up shop in the neighborhood).

    I’ve heard so many great things about Tim’s Dairy. It would be wonderful for someone to move into that space. I have to agree with Linda at the same time though. We aren’t that far from downtown. Take a leisurely stroll downtown or hop on your bike for a quick bite to eat.

    All in all, I’m thrilled to be moving to a neighborhood where you all are interested in supporting local community stores! It’s wonderful!

  • Hilary says:

    A home care company moved into the old Timms Dairy last summer. I was sad to see it as I always thought something fun would go in to the building – I thought about opening a bakery/coffee shop there right before it was snagged.

  • Dana says:

    Hello!

    I grew up at 1023 Main Street and love the East Side! When I was little we would go to Timm’s Dairy,Bill’s on Emery Street or Margret? (I think that is what it was called)Falstads or Hoepner’s Bakery on Main Street! All within bike riding distance for a kid! Penny candy is what we would get along with whatever mom needed! That is how old I am! :)

    I miss my neighborhood and those old stores too! My mother passed away and now I own her house at 808 Dodge! I am still connected! My daughter lives there and I get to be in my childhood neighborhood again!

    I would love to see some of those old stores again and walk the neighborhood to see my old friends. Stop in and say hi or meet at the coffee shop as you say.

    Keep the idea in mind to bring something back but please walk downtown too and if you really want a challenge walk down what we called “Wood Motor Hill” buns of steel for you if you make it up! :) Us “Brices” have a long history of supporting the downtown and we are there at the Harmony Cafe now on Barstow serving up coffee and wonderful bakery goods!

    Root Beer stands, GobHaven Cafe and Brice’s Buttermilk will always be in the memories of some of the East Side Hill neighbors!

    Thanks,
    Dana

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