It has become as much a part of the holiday season as counting blessings, singing carols and hearing out that drunk uncle when all we want to do is howl. As we enter the Christmas shopping stretch, the honorable mayors of many of our villages plaintively beg, cajole and guilt us into shopping local.
Before I go any further, make no mistake about it: running a local store these days is hard, a bit like holding a hellcat by the tail. Between malls and the Internet, you have competition coming at you from all quarters—from down the street to out there in the ether.
But does it accomplish anything for our public officials to effectively turn local retailers in the public mind into charity cases or, worse, scold us for not shopping there?
Real estate might be about local, but retailing is about merchandising. If it’s good, people will come. If it’s not--well, no amount of badgering will get us there.
To press the point this shopping season, my mayor even sent out a crib sheet in the form of a listing of local stores. As if we didn’t know. Should the mayors of our villages be spending time producing local shopping Cliff Notes when the only effort that can help improve local store sales is attracting corporations? More workers during the day mean newfound business, at the time when most village streets are nearly empty.
The implication of this mayoral bullying is clear: help out the little guy. Of course, the implication overlooks the fact that many of us little guys would rather buy something on Amazon than a 20 percent mark-up in town.
That subtlety seems lost on our local politicians. When a controversial Walgreen’s was approved recently to take the place of three local businesses, Hartley Connett, the mayor of Dobbs Ferry, nearly sent the citizens of his village to detention. He issued a letter, telling the good citizens of Dobbs Ferry that they brought the chain store upon themselves.
Wrote the mayor, with all the charm of a claw hammer: “It was also noted that the most important thing any of us can do as residents is to support our local businesses. If residents don’t support these businesses, then we only have ourselves to blame when they go away.” Ouch.
Do we, in fact, have a deep-seated obligation to support a business, just because it’s local? Or does the obligation cut the other way—don’t the stores have the obligation to woo us with either merchandising or pricing?
Framed as merely a responsibility, the concept of shopping local comes across as drab. But a good local store with good prices? Well, that’s something I’d shop at without the seasonal browbeating. You?
Marek Fuchs is the author of "A Cold-Blooded Business," the true story of a murderer, from Westchester, who almost got away with it. His upcoming book on volunteer firefighting across America, “Local Heroes,” is due out in 2012. He wrote The New York Times' "County Lines" column about life in Westchester for six years and teaches non-fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville. He also serves as a volunteer firefighter. You can contact Marek through his website: www.marekfuchs.com or on Twitter: @MarekFuchs.