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Many small towns here in the US offer the story of a trend that has probably spanned the last 30 years: empty downtown storefronts embody the eclipse of small owner-operated retail businesses by malls and chain stores.

Malls drove some of this change. But it’s not just malls: I’ve even seen a nearly deserted shopping mall, a stone’s throw from a shiny new Walmart.

This trend may seem more sudden to New Yorkers because we’re so close together here. Because we frequently travel on foot. Because when a small business closes, the storefront – empty, or filled with a higher rent tenant – is in our faces. Because real estate values and rent prices are bandied about in polite conversation. (When I moved here 20 years ago, I couldn’t believe it, either.) And because, outside of fast food outlets, the chain store incursion didn’t gain momentum here until the early/mid 1990s.

Twilight Becomes Night is Virginie-Alvine Perrette’s documentary on thevalue of Mom & Pop businesses in our daily lives. It will be shown this week, at New York’s Anthology Film Archives on February 20, 2008 at 6pm.

Virginie recently treated me to a homemade lunch, and we talked about her career and her film.

After starting her career as an environmental attorney, Virginie bought a camera, enrolled in an NYU continuing ed film course, and started interviewing small business owners: she was a filmmaker. At around the same time, she also started 2 Spot Digital, a video production company, with a childhood friend Kate Howard.

Interestingly, 2 Spot is itself a small business that has grown organically, through friends, family and word of mouth.

She learned her craft as she made Twilight Becomes Night.

Each new store was a new experience, and store owners were tolerant as a grateful Perrette learned on the job. “I didn’t have a wireless microphone. So at first the microphone was attached to the camera, and I was tethered to the store owners. I would follow them around all day, often barely averting tripping one person or knocking over something else.”

On the last day of business for Howard Hassan’s Basket Shop (formerly near City Hall in Manhattan, thankfully re-opened in Borough Park), Hassan describes the satisfaction of working in a way that has earned the trust of his customers. Smiling broadly, he says,

“I know that I can never capture the whole the world, you know, to be a giant in the industry. I guess unlike some people my dreams aren’t that great. I don’t need to be a giant, you know, it’s okay that I’m not.”

On the Basket Shop’s last day in business at the City Hall storefront, a customer had stopped in to offer his best wishes. Viewing the microphone setup, he said to Perrette, “You definitely need a wireless mic. Come with me.” He walked her across lower Broadway to J&R Music, and gave her a wireless microphone, which she used for that scene and the rest of the film.

The customer turned out to be the owner of J&R, and had always loved the Basket Shop.

I asked Virginie what she found to be most surprisingly easy about making this film. She said, “The connection – I would walk into a store with my camera and tell people that I was making a documentary about the vanishing of small business, and they simply let me in.”

She sometimes worried about intruding on very personal and emotional moments, as owners closed their doors for the last time. But, as she explains, “I think that I connected with the store owners because we both knew that this story should be told, otherwise stores are simply disappearing into thin air.”

Virginie, herself, is completely absent from the film. She is not a talking head, a disembodied voice asking questions, or a narrator. But her editorial voice is strong and clear.

She captured her stories simply by letting people talk as she filmed.

This was also a challenge: she started with 60 hours of film, which had to then be edited down to 35 minutes. Virginie told me that she feels it’s important to let people find their voice as they talk, rather than guiding them to say something specific.

It reminds me of a technique that one of my teachers, Mike Useem, gave to me and fellow graduate business students when we provided companies with consulting services in exchange for school credit. He told us that we’d know that we had our data when people started telling us the same story over again.

Twilight Becomes Night is not an angry film. Virginie said, “I feel like there are enough angry anti-globilization films out there. And, while I feel they are very important, that’s not me.” She is actually optimistic. “It is not too late” she says, “But it is essential that we act now.”

Her goal for her film to inspire New York City to start helping small business legislatively. Perrette tells me that San Francisco, Chicago, London, Paris, and lots of other cities are starting to enact regulations to help save their local business. She wants to encourage New York City to do the same; for there to be a concrete change in the way that the city – its government and its people – views and values local business.

Already, Virginie said that she had been in touch with the New York City Planning Commission. They have seen the film and are interested in using it to gain traction on this issue.

So saving these stores is a possible reality. But we have to act.

I was a few minutes late to lunch due to a “user error” with the subway. But I had also stopped in at a local store to pick up a little something for dessert. As we drank tea and ate locally-made cookies in Virginie’s sunny work space, we talked about how individuals can help.

I told her about my relationship with Tribeca Hardware, which began years ago with a broken light cord I took in, looking to find a matching replacement. Instead, one of the guys worked on it for quite a while to fix it.

And he wouldn’t take any money. He said, “Just come back and buy something.”

Virginie thinks it is similar to trying to lead a healthier, more environmentally friendly life. “We won’t be perfect, but every little step counts. Maybe we can’t buy everything at a local store, but we can try our best to be sure we think before we buy and choose a local store whenever possible.”

(Mall in Hong Kong’s Kowloon Tong, photo by flickr user JohnSeb, used with permission under a Creative Commons license.)