Guest Column

The Out of Towners

“What? You go to him?” asks my friend, more in censure than inquiry. 

      Standing up from a cup of diner coffee, I had mentioned taking my truck to our village service station. My friend pulls in his chin and regards me over his glasses. My naiveté is pitiable, says the look. He charitably explains that “everyone” (the cleverer folk, I am meant to understand) patronizes a national fix-it chain seventeen miles away in the concrete sprawl outside our county seat. His mental abacus clicks as he adds up points for himself as a sharp in the Great Game of Life. I'm clearly a patsy. 

      My friend is not alone. Others too give the condescending look. It is a visual aid to a lecture given free of charge and without my having to ask.  All I need do is mention buying something from our hardware shop, farmer's market, or local nursery. “You know you can get it cheaper,” begins Mrs. Sharp's shopping parable. She offers for my tuition her own storied dealings with a Crassco or a Wart-Mall in a suburb thirty miles distant, or better--for my fuller appreciation of her enterprise--in another state. 

      Freshly minted country folk dressed in tweeds to pass the collection plate at a chapel set amidst pastures give me the same advice. With God-fearing solemnity, they vow reverence for our rural Eden. They adore our village, they say, yet every Saturday churn the odometer trolling somewhere over the horizon. Thinking people we all think ourselves, but I am not sure we always think.

      The Sharps lecture because they think I don’t think. But, when goaded by stimulus, they leap up and career off over the hills. Pavlov's dogs drooled when a bell jingled. We hear a sales jingle and scram to a strip mall. Some drool, some drive, but few contemplate. 

      The Sharps think themselves Smart Shoppers. Wall-to-wall advertising cunningly insinuates such notions into our subconscious through radio, television, internet, and "home" shows, which are commercials in disguise. All who make a buck from big box retail connive to draw us out of town, draw us out of family owned shops, and draw money from our purses with shelves heaped with everything and anything whim might impel us to buy--because it's a foot from our noses and it's a bargain!

Big boxes entice by underpricing traditional stores, and so continually reduce quality and service. Tools break after two days' use and cavernous aisles are empty of help. You go in for lawn seed but are confronted with towering stacks of chemically scented Weed-n-Seed, Seed-n-Feed, Feed-n-Dust-n-Weed, PCP-n-Weed. After fifteen minutes an "associate" (itinerant worker) happens into view. Before he scurries, you accost him to ask which sack holds the industrial confection most nearly approximating grass. He shrugs, "Dunno. Only here a week." 

We complain, but are complicit in producing what we abhor because we keep running off to load up stuff, and if eight things cost as much as three, then let’s have eight. Actually, let's pause for thought. Is spiritual fulfillment filling the house with more junk than the Jones's? Reality TV shows encourage people to call themselves shopaholics. I don't know about you, but when I act like a mindless twit, please let me not compound my witlessness by publicly boasting of it. 

We say we love our historic villages and lament vanishing fields and forests. Yet we reflexively bypass local merchants, contributing to a decline of the very things we profess to esteem. 

Village merchants know us because they live next door. Mike knows which paint sticks to a fence and what peels off in winter. Lorraine gardens here too and knows which fertilizer works and which wastes money. Local shops do not bulge with Shandong schlock, but I prefer sound advice. I also appreciate our local farmers for indulging my occasional fits of asceticism--those days when I take my produce bare of the complementary “sides” the big box dishes out with its imports: fluazuron, PCBs, and the subtly flavorful 1-bromo-3-chloro-5,5-dimethylhydantoin.

      Our service station prices gas a trifle higher than a high-volume, tin-on-stilts minimart, but Louise and Mike don't sit behind a screen and sell junk food. They provide service. Concluding the pickup tuning, Louise says, “Your car is in next week. Just pay for the truck then.” Mike once billed nothing, “All I did was tighten a loose cable." Totting up neighborly non-charges, free financing, advice on all things mechanical, and a steady supply of jokes, the return I get on a few more pennies pumpside is immeasurable. 

      Price differentials are not always what you think. I once told Mr. and Mrs. Sharp what I paid locally for a shrub they had bought after hours reconnoitering remote curb-stoned wastelands.  "You paid less than we did," they brooded.

      Local merchants run hard to compete in a world that deprecates traditional virtues while rents keep rising. As business people, they work to deliver a service that will keep us coming back. As neighbors, they try to make life better in a community they value as much as you and I do.

A neighbor's store deserves a first visit before you dash abroad. If you don't see something on the shelf, ask to order it. Contrary to pop culture conditioning, you can wait four days for it to get here. We can plan ahead, and learn again to prize sense and patience over cupidity and impulse.

      Our grandparents went to town on Saturday--market day--with lists of errands. We too can plan visits to the grocer, baker, wine shop, post office, hardware store, and enjoy a pleasant walk between each. Fortunately, friendly crowds are keeping alive village market days and our community. We could use more. Support a neighbor. Shop local.