Shopping In A Small Town

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People always looked surprised when I tell them that I haven’t been in a shopping mall in nearly nine years. It’s not because there aren’t malls around here – I can drive a little more than twenty-five miles in any direction and end up in a mall parking lot (except west; driving west would leave me twenty-five miles offshore, in the icy waters of Lake Michigan). Saving gas and drive-time isn’t the reason I don’t shop the malls either.

A while back, KC Compton wrote a blog titled “On Being A Locavore“; a locavore is a person who eats locally-grown food. I think “locastore” should be a word; someone who shops locally, supporting local businesses and by doing so, helping keep the local economy alive.

I read a “Letter to the Editor” last week in The South Haven Tribune, our small town newspaper. Ester Hansen wrote, “Did you know, local folks, that if you don’t support the merchants, many of them may have to close? Yes, they get a lot of business in the summer from the tourists, but that doesn’t stretch into the winter months. … We need to keep this town vital and active.

“Before buying gas and driving out of town, look around in the local stores. Did you realize that your local merchants give back to the community? Unlike some of the big box stores, these folks help support many of our local events. They are constantly being asked to give to some cause or activity.”

The letter Ester wrote interested me; I had a conversation with a friend about the same subject earlier in the week. I was able to contact Ester by phone, thanking her for taking the time to write the letter to remind us – especially during the busy Christmas shopping season and a season in which many charities are asking for donations to help make Christmas a bit better for those less fortunate – how important the local merchants are to this community. Ester has been a South Haven resident for decades; I am just a year shy of my first decade here in South Haven. We talked about what a great small town this is to live – everyone is so friendly and generous.

One of those generous people is my friend Chris, who I had talked with earlier about shopping locally, and a person who is tirelessly involved with working with many of the local charities. Chris has always been an advocate for shopping locally. “I know these people,” she says of the merchants. “I shop locally because these are my neighbors. They are taking care of me in so many ways. They take care of our kids … not only by making sure they are safe on the streets, at the skate park, or the ice-rink; they buy their Boy Scout popcorn, Girl Scout cookies and they are who I turn to for help with preparing food baskets. They deserve our support.”

Visiting the local merchants is quite a different experience than shopping in big box stores, or department stores. “Cindy! How are you? And Keith and the girls; how are they doing?” “You’ve got to smell this; Fraser fir scented lotion and hand soap. Oh, you gave it to Jan last Christmas? I spent the most wonderful day with her last week.” “Hhmmm … no, I don’t think we have any rosemary scented candles this year; I’ll look through the catalogs though, and give you a call if I find any.” And at the shop next door: “Rosemary candles … a gift for sentimental reasons? No, but I have rosemary scented incense; will that work? Here, here…just take it, no charge. It doesn’t cost much, and it’s Christmas.”

I asked the clerk at the toy store if she had a black lab Webkin, this decade’s version of Beanie Baby stuffed animals, only Webkins come with an on-line virtual world. It was a Christmas gift for Shannon, my youngest, who is best buddies with our new black lab puppy, Marquetta. The clerk searched through a big basket of the things, came up empty handed, then went to shelves stacked with them, and found the last one. She explained the Webkins in the basket were discounted for Christmas, but because she was sure the black lab was on sale at one time or another, shhhhh, don’t tell anyone, but I could have it at the sale price (oops, I guess I just spilled the beans).

And then there are the store greeters. “Hello, and welcome to Walmart” is not in their vocabulary. In fact, their only vocabulary is a series of woofs. There’s Mugsy at Props For the Home.

Willie at Ducy’s General Store has his own comfy place behind the cash register.

And Booker and Dewey sit opposite each other, appropriately, like bookends at Black River Books.

I do not mean to imply that I don’t have occasion to shop in the big-box store here in town, or make the drive to a department store in one of West Michigan’s “big cities”: Holland, Kalamazoo, or the twin cities of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph. Neither am I saying that employees at these bigger chain stores aren’t friendly, courteous, or offer a high level of customer service. They do, and some of these stores support our schools and charities. They also offer similar products than I can get in town at a less expensive price (rosemary incense and it’s-not-really-on-sale sale priced Webkins aside).

It’s the small-town familiarity that I prefer … and not the familiarity of walking into any Walmart in the nation and finding the same thing in the same place as in any other Walmart. It’s the friendly familiar faces that I see outside their stores cheering for our school sports teams, at high-school and middle school concerts, town festivals, local events, or just walking down the sidewalk. As my friend, Chris, said, “These people are my neighbors.” And neighbors helping neighbors is the back-bone of any thriving community.

And to the entire thriving GRIT community, I wish you a Happy Holiday Season.