Over the past few months, those of us who run brick-and-mortar fiber arts stores in Michigan -- the small ones, not the big-box kind – have watched helplessly while yet more small shops decide to close their doors. Most recently, my good friends in Ann Arbor at Knit-A-Round have announced a late spring closure. Before that, it was a shop in downtown Detroit, Howell, Dearborn, and so on.
Some things need to be said here. Making it through the recession has been a trick, no doubt about it. And to some extent, the fiber arts industry has suffered with every other industry in America, with the exception of fat-cat investment bankers. But that’s not the only cause for concern. When hard times hit, a lot of people down-scaled – that is, they went from their local yarn store to big-box or on-line sources because it was cheaper. More and more, people get patterns from on-line chat rooms. More and more, the brick-and-mortar operations find themselves decimated by on-line retailers, by half-price coupons at the big-box stores (so that yarn regularly priced at 5 bucks becomes 2.50 – and why should those mega-companies care? They get yarn of at least marginally acceptable quality from places where workers receive almost nothing and still make a profit). There are a couple of large on-line yarn purveyors that manufacture yarn in places like South America and China, where both materials and labor are cheaper than cheap. The dyes used are often suspect. Workers are basically used up and thrown away. But still – it’s cheap, and it’s been a hard economic time in America.
I don’t think there is much that can be done about the on-line pattern purveyors, even though a lot of the so-called designers are no such thing and write disastrously awful patterns. I see them all the tme; people buy yarn, then come into the shop gnashing teeth over an idiotic pattern “free” from some website. But many of the patterns are decent. When knitters and crocheters go to company sites, to PatternFish, to Etsy stores, or to Knitty, the results can be satisfactory. Shops can’t carry every pattern that can be secured on line. And books are expensive. I have not been able to persuade people very often that a really good knitting or crochet book is worth every dime, because it’s usually NOT just a collection of patterns. The best books are COURSES – a class between covers – or a collection of stitches or techniques that can vastly expand your capabilities and repertoire. A downloaded book is a pretty pathetic thing. The paper doesn’t last; you have pages flying around; it’s not the equivalent of a lovely binding and glossy pages.
But I’m prepared to give up on the patterns (if I could only persuade people to check with me as to whether the pattern is decent before they spend money on yarn). I might even get a computer set up in the shop so that people can show me what they have found -- to prevent disaster.
What I am NOT prepared to concede is the silly idea that chat-rooms are somehow equivalent to a brick-and-mortar store. A “friend” on Facebook, a contact on Ravelry, is not a friend in the face-to-face sense. These are scarily asocial relationships – that is to say, not physical or tested in any meaningful way. You need to have coffee with someone before you can decide whether that person is a friend. It’s what students at the University of Michigan apparently do – sitting in their dorm rooms “chatting” by computer with students in the next dorm room. It's the mistake I made once, when I was much younger: My friend Barbara set me up with a fellow who was serving in Vietnam. We wrote dozens of letters. He was sure he was in love with me. I was sure I was in love with him. Then he came home. Face-to-faceness happened. He didn't like the pimples on my forehead; I didn't like his receding chin, his swagger, his ... everything. We agreed that we were not in love after all after about three hours. Face-to-faceness, which can be unfortunate in its outcomes, is nevertheless REAL. Cyberspace is NOT real.
These are profoundly destructive habits. They make us autistic, incapable of empathy. We forget that it's nice to be hugged -- which can happen in yarn shops. We can't teach one another or debate important issues or disagree or get into fights in a spontaneous way. So when people stop coming to brick-and-mortar shops, when they decide that they can get the equivalent STUFF from websites, I have to say I am horrified. What about those friendships? What about the knitting groups, the conversations, the laughter? What about the ideas that spring up like flowers in a garden, every time a group meets? And what ABOUT the yarn? Isn’t it better to feel it? To compare things on shelves where you can actually see what it’s made of? Where you can actually swoon over it, or say ICK, before plunking down your hard-earned money? I have always said that I welcome everything in the shop -- no matter where it was bought. I still do. But I worry more and more about the quantity of yarn I'm seeing made by Peruvian children and Asian slaves (I mean that term literally -- the factories often are basically prisons). Most of it didn't come from small shops.
I haven’t even mentioned the whole business about shopping locally, which is supposed to be a big deal, in Michigan and everywhere else.
The handwriting is on the wall: The shops will close eventually, one by one. This is not just a market sorting itself out. These are low-profit enterprises. You don’t get to empty the ice cream machine each night and start over the next day with a fresh batch. Yarn sits on shelves for years. If you don’t sell it, you lose your shirt by selling it at cost. Employees in yarn shops typically make little more than minimum wage, or work for nothing (as with Larry and me). Lots of yarn shops succeed only because somebody, somewhere, has a living wage to fall back on.
So knitters, weavers, crocheters need to decide, sooner or later, whether the shops are worth keeping. Artisan Knitworks is actually a (limited) success story: We have survived, at least for now … so this is NOT about my own shop. It is, however, a kind of warning across the bow. Everywhere, shops are closing. Owners are exhausted. When we talk about it, the exhaustion is pervasive and sometimes unrewarded. It will be up to clients to decide whether they are worth keeping. The decision may be NO. But one way or the other, a decision will have to be made. I’d like to see empathy and sociability prevail. But it’s truly hard to say what will happen over the next year or two. Face-to-faceness is pretty old-fashioned & its survival is uncertain.