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Ken’s View: Town Squares, Genius Groves, And Bodegas

Is nothing sacred? Apple now thinks it owns the town square. There’s a plot afoot to replace bodegas with vending machines. And food courts are passé, to be replaced by food halls.

Let me explain. Apple stores have gone—or will be going—the way of the headphone jack. Disappearing. Not literally, of course. Apple just doesn’t call them stores any longer. They’re town squares “because they’re gathering places for the 500-million people who visit us every year,” an Apple spokesperson is reported to have said.

No kidding. I think at least a million of those people were at the Apple store I went to some time back to replace a power adapter that failed because of design flaw. (I see some of you nodding; you know exactly what design flaw I’m talking about.) Never having been to an Apple shrine, I was amazed to learn that you couldn’t just buy the thing off the shelf. You had to make an appointment with a “genius” for a “consultation” and mill about with those other one-million people while awaiting a text message that announced the “genius would see you now.” At Radio Shack, you could just buy the gizmo and be on your way.

But let’s get something straight: A store belongs to a company that wants to sell you a $1,000 phone, and a town square belongs to the public—who have already paid for it. The town square, I mean.

Word has it that Apple has plans to restore Washington’s Carnegie Library. In place of the books, Apple plans a “Genius Grove,” which is described as a tree-lined sales floor. Wait a minute. Sales floor? I’m confused; I thought this was the new town square. This isn’t what Andrew Carnegie had in mind. By the way, I’ll bet Apple is getting a tax break for “restoring” a historic building.

If Apple has set its sights on town squares and Carnegie libraries, some ex-Googlers are reported to have hatched a plan to put bodegas—neighborhood corner stores—out of business by replacing them with vending machines. Internet-connected vending machines. Gives new meaning to the Internet of Things, doesn’t it?

The new startup is ironically named Bodega, and users must use an app that is linked to their credit card. “Eventually, centralized shopping locations won’t be necessary, because there will be 100,000 Bodegas spread out, with one always 100 feet away from you,” one of the founders is reported to have bragged. That’s great, provided you have a $1,000 smart phone you purchased at a town-square genius grove, a data plan, and a credit card. I can hardly wait.

The announcement caused a ruckus among bodega fans, so much so the founder was forced to issue an apology and claim his intention was not to replace bodegas but to make the “shopping experience” available to those without access to a real, live bodega.

All of this has relevance to those who would preserve, rehabilitate, restore, or reconstruct historic structures: Don’t get too cute or try to be quirky. As Wayne Schmidt of Schmidt Associates, Indianapolis, said, “I think the designer has to be humble and understand that the building is far more important than making a contemporary statement.” You mean like turning a library into a genius grove or a bodega into a vending machine?

— Kenneth W. Betz, Senior Editor

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