Stuart and I are shamefully bad at patronizing our local shops and restaurants. What we do buy in town comes from chain stores like Dollar General and Burger King. We’ve never been to any of the three great looking restaurants, we seldom go to the two markets in town. Until recently, we’ve bought the bulk of our groceries at the nearest Wal*Mart, a half-hour away. The last time we went out to eat, we drove to the nearest large town, also half an hour away, and ate at a TGI Fridays. And yet, we are both committed to the idea of relocalization, in theory.
So why do we drive so far and seem to actively avoid shopping locally? I wish I had a good answer myself. But I don’t. Like so many others, we fell simply into an easy routine. We moved here about two years ago and yet we never really left South Bend, the town my husband grew up in and the closest thing I could ever come to a home town. I don’t think we made a point to explore our new town’s possibilities. It’s downtown is desperately vacant, many buildings are empty or house intermediate stores- thrift stores hobbled together until something better comes along. And it’s our fault. Well, not entirely. It looked that way when we moved here. But collectively, people like us are to blame for the desertion of America’s main street. Honestly, it seems a miracle that there are any stores open at all. If the nearest big box store weren’t 35 miles away, they’d no doubt be closed as well.
We used to justify it because Wal*Mart was cheaper. But it isn’t. Not really. Since the economy tanked, I’ve noticed Wally World ratcheting up their prices. It seems every time we went staples were just a bit higher. I thought the same was happening everywhere else so I chalked it up to inflation and high production/transport costs. On a whim, we decided to go to a local grocery store instead one week. What a surprise! The prices were very competitive and in many cases far cheaper. I think because Wal*Mart has such warehousing capacity and a large customer base, they don’t have to get ride of overstock merchandise with sales quite as much. But the little grocery stores- their sales are fantastic. Also, I noticed they had more over-ripe produce sales- a great way to stock up on produce for canning or freezing. There’s nothing better than ripe bananas at ten cents a pound for banana bread. I’m baking some right now, oh boy!
The point, and I do have one, is that supporting local vendors doesn’t have to be an economic burden. I know many are struggling in these harsh times, which makes it all the more important to support small businesses with our patronage. It keeps money in our community, in the hands of people who have a vested interest in the well being of it’s citizens, young and old. Many of the small businesses in my town support the school with donations, provide great jobs for my neighbors and sponsor causes I care about. And they’re in trouble. Every body’s reporting losses in this recession- except Wal*Mart. It seems each time I drive by, there are more cars in the parking lot. I can only assume that these patrons once shopped in their local markets and have moved on to Wal*Mart to help make ends meet. And I can understand that, it’s their choice to make. But I honestly don’t think Wally World is much cheaper, really. And even if it is cheaper, I don’t think the hidden costs are worth it, not for me. But this isn’t a post to induce guilt- the only guilty party here is me.
The last time I went to our local grocery, the owner gave my daughter a lolly pop- just for being cute. She talked with us about the town, the school and the park. I felt more than a bit ashamed, like a tourist in my own community. Living in a town where my daughter will grow up and experience so many firsts, all while refusing to support it’s main-street… it seems criminal. There’s a bakery, I’ve only been once. It has great doughnuts and bread, but I just never think to go. There’s a wonderful restaurant called Grand Central Station. It’s closed for the winter. We’ve never eaten there. A used book store called Wiks, I went there once before it closed temporarily. It’s been waiting for a “Grand Reopening” for months. I wonder if it ever will.
So from now on, I’m buying local, as local as I can. Not only purchasing foods grown as locally as possible, but from local sellers. In a culture of fashionable earnestness, I’m well aware of the relative meaninglessness of this gesture. Nor would I wag a finger at those who, for whatever reason, feel they can’t shop at small businesses. But, for myself, when another store closes it’s doors for the last time, darkening my town’s main-street, at least I’ll know the owner’s name.