Growing up I didn’t have access to malls, big supermarkets or mass retailers and so there would be frequent trips into town with my mum. We’d stop at the butcher (who knew what kind of cuts we liked and, when money was tight would add a few pieces of salami for us, no charge), the fish market (actually, we’d go down to the docks and buy it off the boat), the five & dime type store (for buttons, thread, or a magazine). There was a high-end womens retailer that my mum would go in, if only to pet and dream about the pretty things and a toy shop where I’d do the same.
More often than not, we’d see our neighbours in these shops or the shop owners would be our friends whose children I’d go to school with or whose husbands my father would do business with. We were all connected which meant we were generally friendly, helpful and dependent on one another.
Over the years my moving and the change modern shopping has held me back from shopping as locally as I did as a child. I found online shopping so much easier since I don’t like malls and bargain hunting. And once in America, where supermarkets and giant retailers were taking over, the need to go from shop to shop – and person to person – seemed like a hassle.
But several years ago, when I was sick of complaining about the lack of service at Home Depot and the practices of Walmart, I began to change my habits and went old school.
My current neighbourhood in Philadelphia, which has been around since the 1700’s and pretty much unchanged since the 1800’s, operates in the old-fashioned local way. In the 60’s, the community saw its businesses closing and the landscape starting to slowly change so residents and business owners worked hard together to save their local shops, to save their friends businesses, to save that connection that was being replaced by anonymous shopping.
Now, we have a butcher, a baker, and yes, a candlestick maker. There’s also a cheese shop, an organic dry cleaner, a camera store, a paint shop – all small, private and locally owned. And busy.
The other day I strolled up to main street, walked into a local cafe for a coffee, and then as I sat outside and sipped it, watched the town wake up. As the clock struck 9AM, the store doors began to open and one by one the owners came out to sweep their store fronts. next, then the locals started to come through those doors as the shopkeepers greeted them by name.
“Hullo Ms. McCormick – got that cheese in.”
“Did you get caught out in that storm last night, Teddy?”
“Isn’t this a gorgeous morning? I need a bigger regular today to go out in it!”
Sitting there, taking it all in, I could have sworn I was in a movie. It had been far too long since I’d been in this kind of environment, the kind where shops really knew your name and your dollar made a difference because the owner didn’t just sell you cold cuts, he was also your neighbour, a tax payer, a potential employer. Maybe even a friend. And that’s worth an extra dollar to me or an extra ten minutes out of my day.
Now, I’ve a healthy balance between supporting my local shops (not just financially but personally connecting and recommending) and shopping mass retailers (Amazon is still really easy for me to get products that can be harder to find or I don’t feel like lugging home). I shop at Whole Foods, a mass retailer of food, but buy the local product within it as much as possible. But Saturdays I buy from the local farmers market in Rittenhouse Square.
I’m more often than not a middle ground kind of girl; looking at all my options and doing what’s best for me, my community and my pocketbook. Sometimes that’s supporting my local shop, sometimes it’s ordering online. Balancing my needs with that of my community. Which isn’t too hard when you get find what works, especially when you consider the benefits all around.