Skip to content

Think globally, shop locally

Think globally, shop locally

Small town America is in a big mess these days. Even where we live (in an upscale New England village), there are many empty storefronts. A combination of economic strategies has created a very uneven field for the players in the retail world.

E-commerce, the Amazons, LL Beans, and Land’s Ends make shopping locally nearly obsolete. The prices are right and you can return anything you don’t like or doesn’t fit, with little or no fee attached. How does a small town retailer compete with that?

The second whammy started when the malls went up, seemingly in an instant, followed by Big Box venues, the Costco’s, Depots, Wal-Mart’s, etc.

Underlying these phenomenally successful retail strategies was the exportation of jobs overseas. In the Clinton era NAFTA made it far cheaper to manufacture goods in Latin America in a tariff free border zone. Later on, the sweatshops and electronic madness of late 20th century globalization sent almost all the remaining manufacturing jobs to the Pacific Rim, China, and India. The US has become a paper-pushing, service industry – a financial and capital-managing behemoth dependent on consumer spending to maintain economic balance.

I grew up in an industry that made real things.

If someone asked me to design and build a deck, I’d put pen to paper, deliver a sketch and a contract, and start building. The good times were often heralded by the question, “When can you start?” not “How much?” We used hard-core materials from the big mills and factories of the north, south and west. Early on it was hammer and nails, the nails coming out of wire mills in places like New Brunswick, New Jersey.

In college, while doing temp work to pay the bills, I briefly worked in a nail factory. They had me dress up in protective clothing from head-to-toe including an acrylic mask, and sweep around the machines. It was not until I felt and heard the pop of errant material shooting out of the machines – and hitting me – that I realized why no full-time employee wanted to do this job. I quit after the first shift!

Globalization struck home via a box of nails from Yugoslavia.

At this time in the history of the American Carpenter, the best nails came from Canada. They came neatly laid in 50 lb. boxes, the heads round and true, almost “no rejects” or defects at all.

I am trying not to cast aspersions on the country that made the Yugo, but the Yugoslavian nails were clearly inferior. The tempering of the steel made them aggravatingly prone to bending if struck slightly off, and the heads would break off when you needed to remove the bent ones.

The fate of the local hardware store is in your hands.

The local hardware store is a remarkable institution. At one time, there was one on every main street! Thousands and thousands of Mom and Pop venues, staffed by incredibly knowledgeable sales help.

When the “real” Greenwich Hardware store still existed in Greenwich, Connecticut, one salesman was clearly the heavy hitter in more ways than one. Elmer was a big guy in height as well as girth and he knew everything! Upstairs was row after row of stocked shelves. I seldom left the store without the hinge or screw I needed.

Especially important was the row of miscellaneous, mismatched hardware they kept. When I came in hoping to match a hinge, screw, knob, window lock, shutter dog, or some thingamajig I needed for a particular Victorian or Colonial restoration, Elmer would patiently, knowledgeably, search for a match. Elmer was king of the small town hardware world.

When Greenwich Hardware closed their doors, a true going-out-of-business sale was held. The contractors got first pickings. I bought some tools, caulk and hardware. To quote the prophet and musician Joni Mitchell,

“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

At the heart of our social congress lies local consciousness.

And this sword can cut both ways.

“I can’t see it from my house” implies an out-of-site, out-of-mind attitude that effects how humans interact with a global community. The war in Iraq with all its devastation happened “over there.” Except that the children fighting and dying came from our small towns and inner cities.

When we spend our hard-earned money on products made in foreign lands the profits often go out the same way the nails or sneakers or electronic toys or cars came in. They certainly don’t stay on Main Street.

The next time you see or hear the phrase “Think globally, act locally” think about keeping your economic and compassion power home where it belongs!