As seen on These Here Hills
I grew up in a suburb of Chicago with a central square flanked by shoulder-to-shoulder shops in brick and tudor. A fountain on one end, a Parthenon-shaped department store on the other, a park with grass and benches and a flagpole in between. My goldfish met its maker in that fountain because I thought it a better life than the one he'd been living in a small bowl on my windowsill. I met my best friend at that fountain every day before school and ate donuts from the local bakery sitting on the side of it. I had a kiss or two in the dark at that fountain. I climbed that flagpole on a dare. I believed in the spirit of Christmas standing in that park, looking into the illumination of the crèche each December. We called it Uptown and it was an iconic yet controlled kingdom to us, the Downtown of Chicago being so vast and distant. My house was close to Uptown, and after school every day, I walked my dog around its streets, memorizing every alleyway, every store window, smiling at the familiar faces of the shopkeepers who knew my family, our names, our stories.
In those days, many families had charge accounts at the stores. So sometimes, I'd get permission to go on little shopping sprees, charging stickers and pens at the stationary store, ribbons at the dimestore, Bonnie Bell Lipsmackers at the drugstore, an album at the record store, a bike bell at the sports store, seeds at the hardware store for my vegetable garden. We had nicknames for these stores like old friends. They were our meeting places. Our stomping ground. Our stage. When my father died, the local grocery store gave us a cart full of groceries for free once they heard the news. These shops were the bones of our goings on as a community. Not because they represented greed or even commerce to us. They were the places where our mothers ran into each other and gossiped and wondered and pontificated. They were the places where we flirted with boys, dreamed up birthday parties, found the right words for a grieving aunt, played truth or dare over an ice cream sundae. A lot of these shops are gone now. Now the shoe store is a Williams Sonoma. The corner store is a Talbots. The hardware store is a True Value but it's at least still there, even with a Home Depot lurking in the not-so-distance. I'm proud of the way my hometown values its local shops and supports them, even with so much bright-light-big-city so close.
Now I live in another small town, this one rural and full of economic hardship. I watch as the shop owners struggle to make ends meet and keep their doors open. I know most of them the way I knew my hometown shop owners. I watched as they took their vision and made it a reality. I see their pride because in our small mountain community, these shops hold deep importance. There is no option of city. People drive a long way to stock up on feed for their animals, paint for their barns, winter socks for their kids. Not long ago I was proud to say we didn't have a Gap in the state of Montana. Or a Target, a Best Buy, a Home Depot, a Lowe's, a Costco. That's changed now. It's here. Consumption Junction we call it. And it's killing our local small businesses. I see the store owners' worry. All their money wrapped up in keeping their store running even if it's barely paying the bills. I picture Central Avenue being one day like a ghost town of the old west, tumbleweed and all, the bars surviving because people will always drink away their woe. The churches surviving because people will always need to pray in public, knowing they're not alone. But then I also picture a time when the box store will die. Our greed for unnecessary plastic items will fade if not devour us. We'll stop filling up our shopping carts until they are brimming over when all we came for was... well, winter socks. And maybe things will return to the old ways. And people will live off the land. And buy only what they need and only when they can afford it. And barter for what they can't afford. I picture a time when a person with sheep has profound power, shearing them and spinning their fleeces, and a person who knows how to work a forge is the reason why transportation is possible, horses needing shoes and meaning business -- not just decoration or a vehicle of recreation. And the farmer's market will be more than a sunny place to listen to a singer/songwriter and buy a hula hoop along with your Swiss chard.
There is a road here called Farm-to-Market in Montana where I live. It's a pretty Sunday drive. When I take that road, I think about how it once was a bloodline for this community. Blood sport. Many broken hearts along its fences. Countless dashed dreams and false hopes. The kind of road where you sort out what you're going to say to your wife when you come back with a full cart, someone else's tomato crop being what it was. It's not that I defy modern technology or progress or the possibilities of button pushing. It's that I don't trust us to know what to do with what we've created. I trust humility more than greed. And as much as I love that I get welcomed into Walmart and love that I can get winter socks for my kids and Swiss chard both and still get back in time to pick them up from school, as much as I know that those are local people working those jobs, in honesty and humility with dreams of their own, sorting out their own stories to tell their spouses... I want us to stop. I want us to go to the local hardware store and eat a bag of popcorn while we discuss paint color and drill bits and talk weather while we do it. And what about that school bond and what about that new city councilman? I want us to drop our spare change into the Mason jar to help with the Nelson girl who has Leukemia. I want us to go slowly again. I want us to wonder about each other. I want us to ask, "How's business?" and hear that it picked up this October, which is usually a slow time -- better than last year. To nod and smile at that good news and feel like we're going to be okay. We won't lose our hats along with our dreams.
This holiday season, I want us to stop. Not take our turkey hangovers to the early morning, standing at a Target ready to run in like monkeys on a zoo break. I want us to continue the gratitude of the day before. I want us to sleep in and maybe take a walk into town later to see what the local shops have for sale. I want us to have those conversations. I want us to go Uptown instead of Downtown and especially I want us to steer clear of Consumption Junction. Even if it costs a bit more. Even if it is a little less shiny. Even if it means we buy less, or go to three stores to find that one thing our kid asked for. I want us to stroll down Central Avenue. And say hi to each other. I want us to be thankful for our town squares and our backyard businesses and see ourselves in the reflection of their holiday windows.
Laura Munson is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoir, THIS IS NOT THE STORY YOU THINK IT IS: A Season of Unlikely Happiness (Amy Einhorn/Putnam 2010).
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