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Hartman's would do well to better know its neighbourhood

Hartman’s is a business, but also something more. That’s why thedisappearance of a piano and seating area from the Centretown grocerystore has provoked an outcry.

Hartman’s is a business, but also something more. That’s why the disappearance of a piano and seating area from the Centretown grocery store has provoked an outcry.

The Centretown Citizens’ Community Association, Somerset Coun. Diane Holmes and a 1,200-person Facebook lobby are all agitating to have the precious few metres of community space restored.

Stores like Hartman’s still have attributes of the old-fashioned market square, an arena of commerce, but also a gathering place. Most of the crowd is composed of strangers, both the complete variety and the semi-familiar sort you see repeatedly at about the same time every week as you shop, but not infrequently you bump into someone you know. That’s worth something in a sometimes alienating, compartmentalized city.

Shopping at Hartman’s is not an unalloyed joy. The merciless arithmetic of SUV shopping carts, narrow aisles and countless zoned-out fellow shoppers produces endless variations on the same tiresome theme.

But the various players sitting at the piano sweetened the drudgery and gave the store something unique. Their heartfelt interpretations of classical and popular music have been replaced with the same bland piped-in Muzak offered everywhere else.

The removal of the piano was only one of a few recent examples at Hartman’s of what the Germans call Schlimmbesserung, an “improvement” that actually makes things worse.

Some checkout counters have been replaced with automated checkout machines, which are such a pain in the arse to operate that staff members have been assigned to train and assist customers in their use, thereby assisting the disappearance of their own jobs.

A turnstile has been installed at the entrance, further snarling the already bottlenecked foot traffic in this area as shoppers try to guide their carts through it. And I think it best, for reasons of decorum and brevity, that I don’t even get started on the new plastic bag regime.

The piano was removed, says Hartman’s, to make room for an expanded produce section. Still, reports persist that the main idea was to evict the homeless from the seating area.

Seldom does anybody officially admit to such callous snobbery. The disappearance of benches up the street at Bank and Cooper this fall was officially explained as a snow removal measure, but nearby business owners had complained of the no-fixed-address set sitting around. So now they stand around.

Hartman’s is, of course, free to make business decisions, and is somewhat protected from the consequences of customer displeasure by a paucity of nearby competition. But Centretown is a neighbourhood, and business owners are neighbours who should remember to act like it.

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