Community, Commerce & Consumer Greed - The North American Dream? by Joe Nagel
Community is a word in everyone’s vocabulary, and most people could likely come up with a satisfactory definition. This definition could be honed by reference to a dictionary, but the understanding of the word would remain an intellectual one. An emotional slant on the word is, I maintain, a more important understanding, and that meaning is best derived from experience, as are most of the ideas I’ll discuss here. For example...
About ten years ago I moved from a narrow city lot to a small suburban acreage, complete with nearby forests, a four stall barn, and relatively widely spaced neighbours. I discovered what most rural people have known for a long time - there tends to be an inverse relationship between population density and “neighborliness,” for lack of a better word. Within a year I knew more of my neighbors than I had ever known before, having lived in both apartments and houses in an urban environment.
Several years ago a small strip mall was constructed within a short walk of my property. However, because of property layouts, I had to walk about a mile to get to any of the stores, one of which was a small grocery/butcher shop. Given the length of that walk, the Northwest climate, and busy schedule, I never once made that walk.
More recently, a new subdivision layout created a right-of-way which cut the walk down to less than ten minutes. As a result, I now go shopping almost daily, enjoying the brief walk. To compound the pleasure, I now have more time to walk, having lost my regular job several years ago to a round of the downsizing. Safeway lost about $50 each week to my local supplier, who knows me by first name, knows what I do, and misses me when I’m not around. And tells me about it. Community.
To underscore this experience, I have been on the other side of the counter by way of my wife’s small bookstore. It is situated about a ten minute drive from our home, in an old part of the city which is gentrifying at a fast pace. Across from a regional bus loop, it hosts many walkers, many elderly, and many of whom have lived in the community for a long time. They are her community, and my wife knows literally hundreds of them by name and sees them weekly. A surprising number see books elsewhere and save their purchase for her, even though she may well be up to 30% more expensive on particular items than the large discount houses. And they tell her about it.
The two small communities I’ve briefly described are in the context of commerce. What I am buying is not only meat and vegetables, but a piece of people’s lives. Not only do I know about their families, but through my puchases I am helping to support them, and I consciously try to do so. I do this because I care about them, and my purchases have little to do with their price. I never even look and compare, because I know they are reasonable people and are pricing their products in a responsible way, and in a way which will allow them to survive and hopefully prosper. I know this because as fellow merchants, that is what we also do. The community created by small-business commerce is quickly fading from the North American marketplace. Which brings me to what I think is one of the reasons, something I term consumer greed.
By this I mean the endless activity of scouring the ads, reacting to “sales,” doing the weekly runs to Costco and the like, all part of chasing after the best deal. Although this process can be driven by real need, all too often it is simply an expression of wanting to get more toys for less money. We all too often point to the rich and their greed, but in responding to the “self-evident” rightness of buying for less, we are literally destroying the community-building which can be such an important part of commerce. Or not even building that community in the first place. Community commerce supports the neighborhood in which it takes place. Big business, with its lower prices, removes money from the community and creates little emotional interaction. Are you more likely to re-member that your CD vendor suggested a great recording to you because her daughter liked it, or that you “saved” $3.50 by buying it at a nameless vendor, where you actually bought two because they were so cheap. But the second wasn’t as enjoyable as you had hoped . . .
The endless quest on the part of (us) consumers has resulted in a great concentration of wealth and decrease in commercial diversity. If we aren’t willing to pay for our neighbor’s education, either by way of taxes (we all complain, don’t we), or by way of buying from their stores, their children won’t get educated. And we won’t benefit from knowing them and learning from their experience.
So, contrary to popular wisdom, I almost never shop around. I now try to pick a local owner/merchant who carries what I want, then buy without regard to price. And guess what? I don’t think it really costs me much extra, especially when I consider the absence of the “impulse” buy, the saved time, and the community that I have helped build. I may not be a smart consumer, but I am a much happier one.
Joe Nagel designs data base systems for museum collections internationally. He can be reached at www.open.org/brandtw/kustos