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Long Story Short: Change is good—or is it?



A retail icon fades away

Attention, Kmart shoppers, the ultimate blue light special will occur sometime in December. The last such store in the region, at 1001 Hertel Avenue, will close near the end of the year, just in time for the holiday season. Liquidation sales start soon.     


USA Today printed an unofficial closing list last week, leaked by an anonymous employee on www.thelayoff.com. Employees of Sears/Kmart are encouraged to share news of closings on this site. The Buffalo News confirmed the Hertel closing, and, along with the upcoming Jamestown store closing, this will mean Kmart has gone the way of the dodo in Western New York.


Let’s face it, stores like Sears and Kmart are a thing of the past, replaced by online shopping.


Mrs. Sykes

The poster boy for the decline of western shopping civilization, is Amazon.com. The success of online shopping, typified by this marketing behemoth, has resulted in abandoned shopping malls and plazas across the country.


All of which reminds me of Mrs. Sykes, an older woman who once owned a small mom and pop grocery store on Sweet Home Road near Sheridan Drive in Amherst. It was the 1960s, and while the store may have had a formal name, we didn’t know it. “We’re going to Mrs. Sykes,” is what we would say.


By the time I became a customer in my preteens, the store was catering mostly to kids, who stopped by after school to get their fix of candy, Hostess Twinkies, and cigarettes. A regular size Milky Way candy bar cost a nickel then. My favorite snack was Snaps, a licorice candy with a sugar coating reminiscent of bar soap. It was two cents a box. You could return four beer bottles collected from neighbors for their two-penny deposits, and walk away with a candy bar, a box of Snaps, and one Double-Bubble gum.


When Tops Supermarket opened on Sheridan Drive and Baily Avenue, mothers stopped sending their kids to Mrs. Sykes for a quart of milk or loaf of bread. These things were now cheaper and fresher at Tops, with a much greater selection. Mrs. Sykes could often be heard lamenting loudly—in what I think was a Polish accent—that customers no longer bought groceries at her store. “I have everything they need; why don’t people shop here?” she would rant. Eventually, Mrs. Sykes closed.


A better mousetrap

While mourning Mrs. Sykes, you may also want to shed a tear for the buggy builders, horse breeders, oat growers, and stable attendants replaced by automobile manufacturers, oil drillers, and gas station owners. And with any luck, one day oil refineries will be replaced by clean power producers. Taxi drivers are fading fast too, as Uber offers better and cheaper service; one day drivers my disappear altogether. Meanwhile, hotel chains look over their shoulders at Airbnb.


Times change

On www.thelayoff.com someone left a comment that reads in part: “It's terrible our local store is closing! It seems everyone these days shops on Amazon. Do these people not know that over forty percent of the sellers on Amazon live in China? There are many antitrust allegations against Amazon too, including product review steering/manipulation that mostly benefits offshore sellers and, of course, Amazon. This unchecked corruption is impacting our local retail market. Why does the DOJ/FTC not take immediate action?”


Well here’s the deal: at Amazon, you can buy things cheaper and easier, with a greater selection than at brick and mortar stores. And Amazon recently upped its minimum wage for all employees to $15 dollars an hour, which includes 350,000 US part time and seasonal workers. It’s also lobbying Washington to raise the national minimum from its current $7.25.


Amazon had eleven employees in 1995. By the turn of the millennium, it had grown to 9000. Four years ago, it had 230,800 employees, and in 2018—the last year for which numbers are available—it employed 575,500 people. The first Amazon brick-and-mortar store opened in Seattle last year, and, if New York State hadn’t blown the deal, there would have been a major “HQ2” warehouse expansion in New York City.


In the US, Kmart (which also owns Sears) pays an average of $9.24 an hour, with some jobs at about the national minimum. They have employees in Australia, Canada, the Caribbean, Europe, Mexico, and Singapore. We live in a global marketplace. It was competition from Walmart, not Amazon, that started Kmart’s decline. Kmart/Sears now employs 45,000 workers, down from 89,000 in 2017, and 350,000 in 2012.


Times change.


Boycott blues

If you plan to boycott Amazon because it’s grown too big and powerful, or it treats its employees badly, you’ll need to stop patronizing everything it owns, including the following: Whole Foods, Audible, Twitch, IMDb, Zappos, Shopbop, ComiXology, Goodreads, Ring, eero, Blink, Woot, The Yes Network, Alexa.com, and AWS (Amazon Web Services), which powers many of the websites on the internet, and hosts many of the databases companies around the world use.


Good luck with that.




New drug dealer on Grenway alley

The title sounds like an ad, right? Such are the illuminating posts one finds on Nextdoor, the free private social network for your neighborhood. You sign up and get access to a map of neighbor members in your area, though you can opt not to attach your name to your address.  


People post all sorts of things: items for sale, lawn care tips, contractor advice, guidance on dealing with rats, (poison or traps is the big question), and so on. This particular post was amusing, because it sounded like an advertisement for a new neighborhood service. But no: it went on to say, “All afternoon, running down alley. Hopping into cars at 7/11, hopping out on Auburn and Ashland running back to alley….Please keep an eye out for him.” A picture was attached.


A later post from a house close-by read, “I haven’t seen the skunk, but boy do I smell it. A skunk has clearly sprayed in my yard. I’m on West Ferry near Elmwood. Please be on the lookout - especially those of you with dogs.”


I had to wonder if the two stories were connected.



Let’s compare

Architectural Digest recently ran an online article titled This Smaller U.S. City Is Filled With Frank Lloyd Wright Gems. And guess what smaller US city they were talking about. That’s right, our very own tiny metropolis. After the customary minihistory lesson about a once thriving city, the article gets down to citing our remarkable FLW heritage. It states: “The darling of Buffalo—the Martin House Complex—unveiled a major restoration earlier this summer. ‘This is the most comprehensive, extensive, and expensive restoration of any Frank Lloyd Wright building in America,’ says Mary Roberts, its executive director.”


Most of the art history books I’ve seen feature the Robie House in Chicago, as the prime example of Wright's Prairie style of architecture. I’ve been there, and it’s a beautiful house. But the Darwin Martin Complex blows it away. And the Martin house is now essentially completely restored, including fifty of the fifty-five original furnishings Wright designed for the house. The Robie house restoration is still very much a work in progress. I just read a bio on Frank Lloyd Wright, and Larkin Soap Factory secretary Darwin Martin looms large as a major figure. Robie comes and goes in several pages.


When the art history books are revised, watch for the Martin Complex to become the prime exemplar of Wright’s early career. The article goes on to mention other original and newer (FLW inspired) buildings in and around the city. Great pictures too. 



Billy goat grub

The story goes that Frederick Law Olmsted envisioned using goats to maintain the undergrowth throughout Buffalo’s park system. As we all know, lawnmowers became the maintenance tool of choice for parks, but goats are making a comeback, thanks to Let’s Goat Buffalo, the area’s first “goatscaping” business. Owner Jen Zeitler recently set her goats to chomping around the Richardson Olmsted Campus, to eliminate the invasive plant species that had become overgrown around the celebrated H.H. Richardson building. In two days, the animals wiped the land clean, without chemicals or carbon-producing power tools. And they leave methane-free fertilizer behind. Goat digestive systems sterilize seeds, so they don’t grow when, um, returned to the land. Goats are economical too. Like hippies, they work for weed. Goats leave the natural habitats of bees, turtles, and other species untouched. And goats eat poison ivy, which has become a problem in Buffalo lately. Plus, lawnmowers make terrible cheese.


If only goats could be trained to differentiate between wanted garden plants and weeds; I’d get one for my yard.



Downtown theater experience

It took a year, but my wife and I finally went to the downtown AMC theater at 639 Main Street. Years earlier, this space was run by GMC theaters, but it had been near-dormant (except for a live theater group) since 2014. I had wanted to go since it reopened, but the idea of hunting for pay-parking, rather than enjoying free parking in the large, free Elmwood Regal lot, dimmed my enthusiasm for the downtown experience.


However, making the effort turns out to be a rewarding experience. The AMC theater has the cushy reclining seats pampered moviegoers have come to expect from a multiplex. The seats also have available heating (presumably for the cooler months). And AMC has a concession stand that is miles above the usual popcorn and candy fare. We’re talking chicken and waffle sandwiches, stone-fired flatbread pizzas, loaded hot dogs, Bavarian pretzels, even gluten-free snacks. But wait—that’s not all! They have a bar, with beer, wine, and cocktails. And you can refill your soda container from a lobby machine.   


The screen was big, the sound was spectacular, and the crowd was well-mannered. The manager says movies aimed at teenagers attract audiences that, as with other theaters, can be a tad restless. But we saw Once Upon a Time in Hollywood on a Sunday afternoon, parking was available and free on Main Street, and the overall experience was sublime. Do as your grandparents did—consider heading downtown for a movie. 



A fish with two mouths

I’m not even going to take a crack at explaining this, but a woman fishing in Lake Champlain caught a lake trout with two mouths.


No, seriously. A video with pictures can be seen here.


Debbie Geddes, of upstate New York, reeled the catch in, took a picture, and released the healthy fish back into the lake. The photo of the catch was posted and went viral. Theories as to why the fish had two mouths ranged from the result of an injury to nuclear radiation mutation. But others shared their own pictures of two-mouthed fish, so apparently it happens. The fish made the news around the world.



A tax by any other name

New license plates for New York drivers come out on April Fools’ Day, 2020. And the joke is you're going to have to pay to get one. If you’re lucky enough to have already purchased the “new” blue and yellow plates, you get ten years before the state sticks it to you.


But the blue and white plates? You will be forced to replace them immediately at a cost of $25. Governor Cuomo’s office says there are three million of the blue and white plates still in use. Cha-ching. For another $20 you can keep your current plate number. Cha-ching. Plus, there’s a fee of $3.75 to issue a new registration. Cha-ching.


Many of the blue and white plates are peeling, some so badly that they are unreadable. The new plates will still be made at Auburn Prison, but a different vender has been hired to do a better job. The new plates will also work with cashless tolls, so there’s that.


According to the governor’s press release, New York’s current generation of license plates needs replacing because many are “damaged, oxidized and peeling.” So, wait, why are we paying for them instead of the company that made the faulty products?


Inmates earn about $1 an hour for stamping aluminum with adhesive coatings supplied by a California company. Cuomo says the cost is mandated by a law, but the truth is not so simple. it’s hard to see how plates mass-produced at slave-labor wages could cost the state $25 a pair. This appears to be another nickel-and-dime tax.


The good news is that New York residents got to choose the design they most wanted to be overcharged for. The winner was revealed Friday. You can see it here.



Tow, tow, tow your boats

Imagine you must relocate a 25,000-pound sculpture made of aluminum canoes and a rowboat or two, strung together with steel cable, with a base that’s sunk into concrete. That’s the challenge the Albright-Knox Art Gallery was faced with last week, when it moved Nancy Rubins’ striking work with the long title: Monochrome I, Built to Live Anywhere, at Home Here.


In preparation for the museum’s upcoming campus development and expansion project, the sculpture needed to be relocated to the Hoyt Lake side of the museum grounds. The Elmwood Avenue side, where the sculpture resided for the past eight years, will eventually be excavated to build underground parking, and then landscaped to be more parklike. It goes without saying that such a move entailed a lot of planning and preparation.


So how?

From scarce information available from museum officials, and daily observations, the effort entailed the liberation of the work from its concrete base using jackhammers. It was then lifted with a crane onto a flatbed truck, and driven to the new location, where the process was reversed. It took a couple days to get the sculpture unmounted. The actual move took place early Thursday morning, to avoid traffic and gawkers. Safety was the main concern, along with assuring that the work was not damaged.


Mission accomplished 

“We are thrilled with how smoothly everything went both today and yesterday,” said Peggy Pierce Elfvin Director Janne Sirén. “Moving a 25,000-pound sculpture comes with unique challenges, but our team rose to the occasion and completed everything quickly and safely.”


Sirén also expressed his gratitude to Rubins, who worked with the museum to facilitate the move. The distinctive sculpture had become something of a landmark since being installed near the entrance road to the museum. Since the word “anywhere” is included in the title, and “here” is somewhat ambiguous, the name still works. A win for everyone.


Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.


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