Who would have thought that the demise of Borders in the fall of 2011 would cause an uptick in my business in the spring of 2015? Or that for all the different avenues I use to get the word out that my little shop exists, that word would go out in a forum I joined for completely personal reasons?
A little background will help here. Flemington, New Jersey, where my shop is located, is a one square mile “borough” completely surrounded by, and in the exact center of, a 37 square mile “township.” They share the same postal zip code and school district, but nothing else, including planning boards. The dedication to “home rule” in New Jersey and the proliferation of small municipalities is a subject for another time; accept that this is the way it is. Flemington is the county seat of Hunterdon County, by most measures one of the wealthiest in the nation. In the not too distant past, Hunterdon County, including Raritan Township, was mostly farmland. The surrounding population came to Flemington for shopping of all sorts. My own shop was a bakery during the time of the Lindbergh trial and later a butcher shop with a side business in other groceries. (I still have people coming in and saying, “I remember when this was Fink’s Market.”)
Main Street had clothing stores, shoe shops, variety stores, butchers, bakers, and probably candlestick makers: everything your rural farmer needed to make a trip to town worthwhile. The “Egg Auction,” now offices, was the center of the trade in one of the local specialties. And of course, there was the Court House, the jail, the county clerk, and the law offices. Then came suburban sprawl. Flemington Borough contains the intersection of two state highways, one running northwest to southeast, the other northeast to southwest, and both giving easy access to major interstates. The borough has been completely built out for generations; but the surrounding township had all that lovely farmland just ripe for housing. Now the population of Raritan Township is five times that of the borough.
And what do township committees faced with the necessity of providing services to all these new voting residents without raising taxes want? Ratables! Clean businesses, not dirty factories. Shopping centers! And so, along these now congested highways, we have a proliferation of shopping opportunities: The Shoppes at Flemington; Raritan Town Square; The Flemington Mall, all containing outposts of nationwide retailers, all in the township and not the borough. And all offering wide selections and constant sales with which small retailers cannot compete.
This story of the death of Main Street is not unique to Flemington. Nor am I complaining, since I live in Raritan Township and thus am a beneficiary of their planning decisions. Efforts are underway, and making progress, to revitalize the downtown Flemington shopping area. As new “boutiques” open, first class restaurants thrive, and a strong “shop local” movement grows, there is cause for optimism. But overcoming the mindset that the downtown is full of empty storefronts and not worth visiting has been a struggle. There’s a lot here, including a wonderful book shop, but how do we get people to town? How do we make them aware of what’s available?
My purely selfish desire is to let people know that my own shop is here. For someone wanting new books, there is not another option available within 10 miles in any direction. Residents of the townships to the north and west of Flemington, who say they come to Flemington to shop, mean that they shop at the “highway stores.” And as far as they know, the big empty store in the Flemington Mall means that there is no longer a place to shop for books. That monstrous retail space has been vacant, with the name “Borders” on it for more than three years, and the signboard for the mall still prominently displays “Borders” at the top. I was at times tempted to see if I could rent a small corner of the window to place an ad for my shop.
Those truly looking for a bookshop find me online. But those whose idea of shopping for books means a national chain store are out of luck. I had a phone call last week from a woman asking if I was a “regular” book store. I explained what I offer, including the ability to order any book she might want. I realized quickly that “regular” meant “chain”; small independent was not a concept she could grasp.
My marketing efforts have evolved with the times. Print advertising, once the best way to reach potential customers, has become a waste of money. The abundance of online options is overwhelming, and I keep trying to figure out what the local population follows. This week, however, there was a huge boost through no effort of mine. I joined a local Facebook group as an individual because it is a great source of information. The local newspaper has degenerated, and the larger “state” newspaper doesn’t have time or space for our local concerns. The Facebook group involves everything from recommending local tradesmen to keeping up with the news we are most concerned with. A few weeks ago we had a state police SWAT team in town, frightening everyone including me as I drove home, and the only place to find out why was this group. The mayor posted what he knew. The group is not an advertising vehicle, and we all respect that, posting only special events of interest to the community. The members are also respectful, so discussions do not devolve into nonsense. Politics is a forbidden subject.
The hot topic this week was the activity noticed at the old Borders store. It turns out that an outpost of a large sporting goods chain has finally rented the space. Good news in itself, because there is no longer a local sporting goods store to be put out of business. As the thread grew, those in the group who know my shop mentioned how fortunate the town is to have a book shop since the demise of Borders. Suddenly I had an influx of new, local visitors who were very complimentary about the shop, and very liberal with their purchases. I have to say, the oldest marketing method works best: Word of Mouth, even if it’s on Facebook, not face to face.