The Precariat Shoppe

29 thoughts on “The Precariat Shoppe”

  1. Johnny, I greatly appreciate your blog. Funny, I used to complain about bloggers who would publish so many photos in one post but in your blog the photos show, show, show.

  2. I had an aunt who bought women’s clothing wholesale and sold it at various flea markets and fairs around New York City back in the 1960s. She wasn’t in the precariat though. My uncle was a fireman, a good union job, but they liked having a bit more money. A lot of the people in this article are much closer to the edge. I wonder how many of them have turned a hobby or sideline into their main living.

  3. I think that the massive fire plumbing is really not to fight fires but to prevent reverse contamination of the public water supply – It looks like a “backflow” preventer.

      1. Yes and no.

        I’ve installed household size backflow preventer devices as part of an irrigation system and they fit in your hand and cost $40.

        The water supply system that a municipality installs is sized for fire fighting, not drinking water needs inside a building. So the pipes and pressure out on the street are jacked up for the fire department’s needs. High flow. High pressure. Hence the giant $65,000 backflow preventer. https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth624503/m1/1/

        Chuck Marohn (a civil engineer) and I talked about this in regard to the situation in Flint, Michigan. Safe drinking water could be piped at lower pressure to the homes in Flint for pennies on the dollar while the existing poisoned water system could remain in place for fighting fires.

        This whole set of arrangements also goes back to the basic economic structure of the built environment. If every building is set on its own giant parking lot and needs very expensive infrastructure to be legal the price point is above what mom and pop operations can support. So we get vacant strip malls and Precariat Shoppes.

  4. Just an impression.. none of those businesses in trucks looked at all “underground”. Just perfectly normal businesses in trucks. Liked how the orange swirl in the fashion boutique moved the appearance of the ceiling up a couple of feet.
    And by coming to the people they deal with the five-miles-to-the-big-box-mall syndrome that I used to have to deal with in the city.

  5. Another interesting post, & a new word to me. ‘Precariat’ seems to be a useful term, describing an economic class that we all know to exist. Like others here, I am concerned with the vulnerability of members of the precariat to being rousted at the whim of those holding local political office.

    1. Great article. I used to think that older places like Brooklyn were burdened by centuries of accumulated rules and regulations. But I’ve noticed most brand new subdivisions and strip malls come pre-loaded with an equally endless list of dos and don’ts before the paint dries. The only force great enough to overcome the regulatory inertia is all out failure. Detroit.

  6. Johnny,

    A(nother) fascinating article – and also a thoroughly depressing one.

    As I began reading, I was puzzled. You’ve repeatedly reported on closed stores and dead shopping centers, while elsewhere I’ve read articles saying that up to a quarter of all malls in the US could close in the next five years. So, given that context, how can rents possibly be going up? The laws of supply and demand surely dictate that they should be coming down.

    Reading on, you answered my question. Doubtless the “distant corporate management” of the mall owners you mentioned does not help, but they will likely become more helpful as the economy worsens. The real problem however, seems to be government, particularly local government, with its multiplicity of rules and regulations, as this piece makes abundantly clear.

    Unfortunately, I think things are going to have to get a lot worse, before they get better. (However, like you, I don’t think the future is Mad Max.) In the short term, as the economy worsens, government is not going to relax any of those rules, simply because they will not be under any pressure to do so. After all, for a lot people, government is the solution to their economic problems, not the cause of them. Eventually however, the money will run out. Raising taxes any further will not be possible, while there’ll be no money forthcoming from either the state or feds, for the simple reason that they’re also bankrupt. Then, just possibly, we might see a rethink.

  7. Thanks again for an insightful look at real life in America. I think the stories shown here are the very lowest rungs on the incremental development ladder, the ones that come just before moving from a business in a tent to the first rudimentary storefront, discussed over at Strong Towns. You don’t have to do a Silicon Valley startup to be an entrepreneur. You just have to find a need and figure out how to serve it. The Precariat is real and there are are lots of people who are one job loss, one medical misfortune or one ill considered student loan away from joining its ranks.

    Recently, Max Azzarello wrote a series called “Lost in the Supermarket” on Strong Towns that pretty vividly shows how the system now works to enable money to invent a story that gives them license to use public money to enrich themselves with little risk, covering the cost of any failure with public money. I contrast that with the “Bodega in a Bus” in your pictures that works the problem, food deserts, that was Azzarellos point of departure with zero public funding and actual success. And it’s not even a new idea. The term “truck farm” comes from the practice from a hundred years ago of small farmers on the periphery of towns bringing their goods to town and selling them off of the backs of their trucks.

    These are hopeful stories you tell. It’s really funny and sad at the same time that the solutions you show are common place in the third world, from street vendors to off grid domiciles like you have in the backyard of your rental. People will overcome, given any chance at all. Please keep your stories coming.

  8. It is very interesting to me that you observe the underground economy that so many of our more privileged citizens seem oblivious to, or even if they notice they don’t know the large scale of it. I have done carpentry jobs, painting, odd jobs, etc. all my life, in addition to “real” jobs. It was all cash, only from people in my network.
    Anyone who is interested can observe how people live and realize they cannot possibly live on what they make from their real jobs. In eastern Connecticut where I live at least half the people I know would be living in their cars without cash jobs. I know Connecticut has an image of upper middle class people in polo shirts but outside of certain towns that is not true.
    I was talking about this underground economy with a friend who is a retired state cop and he sees it as the next chapter in criminalizing poverty. He thinks that the unwashed hordes sleeping in cars or doing work without contractors licences or insurance will be targeted. The licensed contractors don’t like it and it makes more affluent citizens uneasy. Call it the New War on Poverty.

    1. The next wave of law enforcement “innovation” is coming when private IT companies are enlisted to sift through cell phones, e-mails, texts, and meta data to tease out unreported work activity for tax collection and/or zoning violations. Drones are already collecting high definition images and comparing what’s on the ground with what’s on the books. When discrepancies are noted an algorithm spits out a list and property owners are fined accordingly. The company gets half the penalty money and the municipal authorities get the other half. Voila! Instant revenue enhancement for tax starved government.

      The side effect of this sort of thing is that more and more people who currently scrape by in the gray economy will be forced to comply with rules that make it impossible to survive economically. The same municipalities that boost revenues via enhanced enforcement techniques will then have to deal with the consequences of that many more homeless people and prisoners. The most prosperous towns will effectively drive out such undesirables. That means lesser locations will become the repositories of reject populations. Big fun. In other words… the more things change, the more they stay the same.

  9. I love that so many are mobile-based because mobility represents freedom – as in freedom from regulations. You must spend $60,000 putting in a fancy sprinkler system for a building, but a truck filled with flammable fuel, potentially dangerous chemicals, or prescription meds that are moderately easy to steal – put it out on the highway and get wild!

  10. The informal economy (curbside commerce, private/unregulated/untaxed transactions, resale, etc.) has long been a staple of low-income, small-business, and middle class communities.

    It’s the neighbor who repairs cars “on the side”. The plumber who “moonlights” using his employer’s van and tools to clean drains and do other quick jobs for friends of friends who know his number, and for small landlords who need low-cost services. The semi-retired master electrician who is probably collecting Social Security. The stay-at-home-mom who watches working-moms’ kids for a much lower price than the franchised day-care center. The trash hauler (who is just a guy with a pickup and trailer who knows the way to the dump and picks up day laborers when he has a job to do). “Hail storm chaser” roofers and paintless dent repair guys. Yard and odd-job guys. I’ve known and used all these folks’ services and I’m even related to some folks who do these things.

    The key: it’s all networked in. They find customers through their trust network. They don’t advertise, but some seem to get and take Facebook referrals. They work under the radar. They don’t have computerized invoice systems and may not exactly keep good records. Their office is their kitchen table and smartphone.

    And they get paid in cash (or by check, if they mostly trust you).

    That’s a notch below the restaurant and grocery food trucks, which aren’t really “under the radar” operations. But it is more of what you’re talking about: no fixed costs for a place, and another nail in the coffin of our overbuilt commercial real estate industry. It doesn’t bode well for the small slice of my retirement money parked in a REIT fund.

    1. I have an endless supply of photos and stories of the sort of arrangements you just described. Unfortunately I can’t publish any of them since I’d destroy the lives of the people featured. The seventh veil must not be dropped…

      1. Exactly. Though the IRS seems to have lost interest in the $100 here or there informal economy ever since the men in suits have been playing around with eight and nine figure stuff.

  11. Yeah, but you don’t just think, you write about it so eloquently. It’s a gift you give to the world, Johnny.

  12. An interesting column. In a lot of ways it makes me think of travels in S America or Asia where you’d see lots tiny enterprises operating out of tables or small vehicles. I often think that the government, particularly local governments in CA, would like to push out all small business that caters to the working class. It’s nice to see some pushing back, and as you’ve noted in other articles, pushing back against the state is not an easy task.

  13. On a recent trip to Champaign, Ill., I spent one morning at a local laundromat. I met a homeless man whose criminal record makes it difficult to find work. He keeps afloat by curb-picking throw-outs (mostly clothes) from college students moving in and out, washing and folding at the local laundromat, and then selling the clothes to a local thrift store. Some clothes won’t re-sell, so he leaves them (washed and folded) at the laundromat for others to have. He even insisted upon giving me a kitchen clock still in its packaging (curb-picked the day before) as a welcome-to-Champaign gift. I, too, admire people who show such creativity, grit, and determination.

  14. People are ingenious! Another place for people successfully working a side hustle is a flea market. Here in Knoxville we have 2 huge markets. The largest has more than 1,000 vendors. The building must be over 100,000 square feet and many vendor stalls are outdoors too. It’s wildly popular and the gigantic parking lot fills every weekend. It’s called a “flea market” but most vendors sell new stuff, not second hand. Rent for an indoor stall starts at just $68 a weekend (it’s only open Friday, Saturday and Sunday). The very low overhead and big crowds of shoppers make it an ideal place to open shop. The vendors appear to be mostly low-income folks. Do all cities have markets like that? I suspect that a few failed shopping centers will eventually become flea markets, which will be a good thing for minimal-barrier-to-entry entrepreneurship.
    http://greatsmokiesfleamarket.com

    1. Tulsa has two large flea markets of this type (across the street from each other). I agree they are quite wonderful.

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