September 27, 2007

Remember who took care of us before it was easy.

It's been a while since I've posted here, and lots has happened since, but it's time again.

I can't help noticing a disturbing trend here in U-Bux, specifically here in Nox Township. When we moved to Ferndale nine years ago, one thing that became immediately apparent was the lack of convenience stores and nearby gas stations. But I figured that was part of the price we paid for being able to live in a rural area. We might not have all the conveniences, but then neither did we have all the traffic, noise and pollution.

But then, I poked around locally, and found that not only did we have quite a few little family-owned general stores, but we also had a plethora of wonderful little sandwich shops that would make any city jealous. We HAD the convenience stores -- they just didn't look like what I was used to seeing, so it took me a while to realize they were here. And, having previously lived in an area so rural that a trip to the nearest feeble little excuse for a grocery store was almost 40 minutes drive, I appreciated them.

Fast forward to this year. A convenience store of the chain variety opens up near the intersection of Hwys. 611 and 412. Some people bitch about the lame traffic flow change (and it truly is lame), others are unhappy about more light pollution (and there is that). But no one seems to mind a 24-hour convenience store that lets them fill their tanks, their bellies and quell the panic of getting down to their last pack of smokes any time of the day or night.

I'll be the first to admit that it's nice not to have to drive 15 minutes just to get some gas in my Jeep, and I've been thankful more than once for that ability. However, what I'm not so thankful for is the reality that the owners of those stores I was so happy to discover nine years ago are being seriously hurt by this latest competitor in the marketplace.

That's right: at least one owner of a store that's been here for years and years told me the business has been seriously hurt, and that they noticed a huge difference in traffic flow within days of the chain store's opening. This is a business that provided jobs for several local people, who've now had to be laid off.

Now, I'm no Luddite, and neither am I an ostrich. I won't stick my head in the sand about what some people call progress. This kind of changing of the guard happens everywhere, and I'm as happy as anyone else about being able to get gas close by (even if the tanks still kind of scare me, as close as they are to the quarry). What concerns me is the apparent lack of regard for the people who brought their little stores here to serve us when it WASN'T convenient or easy or inexpensive to do so.

People should remember that convenience stores will only come into an area when they decide they can make a decent enough profit to make the location worthwhile, and not before. Granted, these little mom-and-pop stores must do the same, but the economics of such a venture are much more difficult and risky for a single-location store with a single owner than for a centrally owned chain that has volume buying discounts to help give them a price advantage.

I'd just like people around here to continue to patronize the mom-and-pop, locally owned shops at the same time they're availing themselves of the new convenience. Why? Well, aside from the fact that it's just the decent thing to do to repay business owners who took a chance on us long before it was a sure thing, there are a few very concrete reasons to do so:

1 - The money generated by the small, privately owned stores and shops stays here, for the most part. And I challenge anyone to say that our area's economy is so robust it wouldn't benefit from a bit more "buy locally" economics.

2 - While the chain stores are required to source from franchise contractors located who-knows-where, several of the small stores and shops source their produce, baked goods, etc. from local farmers and other vendors. Just another way this "act locally" thing works.

3 - Value and quality. Now I know I'm stepping on thin ice here, but I've seen (and tasted) for myself the difference. For instance, the local mom-and-pops I've bought food from offer homemade, fresh sandwiches that have real flavor, with ingredients I could identify without even having to read a label. They sell for a reasonable amount, and I can always count on a satisfying meal.

On the other hand, the one time I bought a breakfast sandwich from the chain store, it contained -- and I swear, I am not making this up -- exactly ONE very thin slice of ham and one slice of American cheese on a bagel that tasted as though it wasn't fresh when the sandwich was made, and then sat for another several hours under the heat lamp before I got to it. Yes, the price was lower than the local one, but for the quality of the eating experience, it was still WAY too expensive for me.

Never again. I'm gonna patronize the shops that have always delivered products I can count on. I know I MUST patronize them, if I want to continue to depend on them being there when I need them.

4 - Ambience. I don't care what anyone says: There isn't a chain store in existence that exudes the same hometown friendliness, happy morning chatter and the occasional dose of juicy gossip that makes a locally owned shop just so much more interesting and welcoming to visit. I like having the owner or clerk call me by first name, and sharing news of local goings-on that they care about as much as I do.

I'm not vilifying the chain stores. They have their place, and I'm thankful for the things they bring to our lives that others can't or choose not to. But in our zeal to take advantage of these new offerings, I wish we all would take a thoughtful and considered stance about how much of our business we're willing to shift over to the new kid on the block.

When they're not new any more, and some of the shine has worn off, I hope we won't have to mourn the loss of those who served us so well and so long before the chains decided we were finally worthy of their presence.

That would just be a shame.

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