Webster’s Saga is Not About Dollars and Cents

Returns In New Location

Well that’s it. The Webster’s of 128 S. Allen St. is no more. Soon, the cafe and bookstore will have a new, albeit temporary, home in 121 S. Fraser St.

Of course, as owner, Elaine Meder-Wilgus, noted during one of the community meetings designed to save the downtown cafe: “Webster’s is not the building…it’s the people that fill it.” That remains true, but as Elaine and every Webster’s patron knows, that does not mean that the upheaval is not a big deal. It matters. It matters because Webster’s used to stand in the middle of Allen St. like an immovable rock of local business, the perfect counter-example to the argument that a community-centered establishment cannot stand in this brave new world of globalization. Unfortunately, that sentiment was nothing but a fiction: Webster’s fell behind financially, and the landlord of a very valuable property made a financial decision. 

Business is business; it has to be about dollars and cents. It is pretty easy to understand, but as a local patron, difficult to take in.

When thinking about the Webster’s saga, it is easy to imagine it as part of a series. The Webster’s Allen St. closing is just the latest piece of a trend of closings that has been occurring in State College – and much of the rest of the U.S. – since the early part of the decade. City Lights and Records, Mike’s Video, and most infamously, O.W. Houts and Sons hardware store, a store that had been a State College mainstay for over 88 years, have all closed in the past few years. All of these stores are gone, victims of changing ways and changing values.

As an Economics major, sometimes it is easy for me to slip into analysis mode. Economics is all about values, and preferences. I find myself saying things like: “Well, if people truly valued a friendly family-owned hardware store over Loews or Home Depot, then O.W. Houts would have survived,” and “If people truly valued locally obtained food and beverage in a cozy community-centered cafe, Webster’s wouldn’t be in so much trouble.” Whenever these thoughts crop up, I force them back down. Not only are they overly-simplistic, they are plain dumb. What is really happening is that places like Houts and Webster’s both offer something that you can’t put a price tag on. But, that doesn’t mean it is not valuable.

What if Elaine’s evil twin charged for every group meeting, community event, or local advertisement that found a place within Webster’s walls? Would Webster’s be in trouble then? No. The disconnect between what is valuable about Webster’s and what can be paid for is the sad issue here – and it is what gave you that gut-punch feeling when you first learned about the Allen St. closing.

Fortunately, I don’t have to end the article on that particularly sad note. As soon as it was announced that Webster’s was in trouble, the State College community that received so much from Webster’s decided that it needed to give something back. Petitions were formed, donations were given. Local artists and musicians participated in a benefit concert not unlike others Webster’s has hosted in the past, but for other causes. The Downtown State College Improvement District got involved, as did Cogster, a State College start-up designed around local micro-investment. It seemed as if anyone who had ever enjoyed a coffee or a book purchased from Webster’s was standing up and putting their money – or their time – where their mouth was.

Cynical, economist me stood aghast as the community stood up and yelled back “Yes! We do value Webster’s and everything it stands for!” Webster’s will still have to move, but it has more support than ever before. Which means, I need to reconsider the context in which I placed the Webster’s saga in the first place. Perhaps, a new trend is taking place in State College, if not the rest of the U.S. Instead of the reality of Wal-Mart over Houts, and Dunkin’ Donuts over Webster’s, maybe State College is moving into that fiction I was talking about earlier. I, for one, am starting to believe in an immovable rock of local business. I am starting to believe in Webster’s.

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