Resolution: Unchain that holiday shopping

November 23, 2001|By Dan Rodricks

THIS IS a song I sing almost every year at this time because it's A Thing with me, the idea that if we are to spend - it's a patriotic duty, don't you know - gobs of money on holiday shopping, let's do some of it right down the street.

Pardon the repetition, but here's my credo: I'm going Main Street for holiday shopping again this year. I'll patronize businesses that are not part of large chains, that are owned and operated by people with long and healthy roots in the community - the ones who take out ads in our kids' soccer yearbooks and the programs for the high school plays - businesses that must not die.

OK, there I said it.

It won't do much good, but I said it.

You'll probably go to the malls and the outlets anyway, and thousands of you will flood into that massive place called Arundel Mills, formerly a perfectly nice swath of trees down by the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. You'll shop online. You'll order out of catalogs. You'll walk right past and drive right past dozens of small stores on streets where you've allowed yourself to believe the parking is a nuisance.

I understand. It's the American way. The big stores advertise on television, and so they become, in an impersonal way, familiar to people. And we like the familiar. Even the impersonal familiar.

The familiar is not the little hardware store on Main Street where your father bought radiator keys and garden gloves. You haven't a clue about how to buy a holiday gift in a hardware store, never mind one that doesn't show up on television and offer 30 varieties of plant food.

I understand.

It's a common condition. It's an American condition. We've been malled and Wal-Marted and Targeted.

We don't know how to shop in little, crowded stores with only one cash register and a clerk without a name tag.

I understand.

But maybe I've seen It's A Wonderful Life too many times. Maybe, because I grew up in a small town, I'm a sucker for small stores. Maybe I think communities are richer if we have thriving Main Streets - Catonsville, Bel Air, Towson, Ellicott City, Hampden hon! - and the way to keep such places is to support the businesses there.

A friend whom I know to be sensitive to this idea called me up to ask if I'd seen the new huge Bass Pro Shops in Arundel Mills. "You gotta see it," he said.

Why? For the cultural experience?

Not me. There are fishing tackle stores and outdoors stores that have been in and around Baltimore for years, and I'm not about to forsake them for some gigantic business at a mall that used to be a nice swath of trees. I know the people who run the little stores, and they know me; it's a beautiful thing. Does it cost a little more to shop there? Maybe. But in the long run it's far more important to me to keep Main Street alive than to save a few bucks on a canoe paddle.

Do me a favor. Do yourself a favor. Try this just once this season. Just try knocking one item off your shopping list on Main Street somewhere.

Go to one of the places I've mentioned - or Fells Point and the Rotunda in the city, or Essex and Dundalk, or along the antiques strip in Reisterstown, or Main Street in Westminster. Take some change for the parking meters. (You could even take the MTA to some of these places, and doesn't that sound like an adventure?)

Walk down the street. Walk up the street. Look in the windows. Pick out a store and step inside. It might feel strange at first - narrow aisles, or no aisles; items stacked no higher than eye level - but you might be surprised. You might find something the Big K didn't have. You might get free gift wrapping. You might like Main Street shopping so much that you'll have lunch there. Or have a cup of coffee and a bagel, and strike up a conversation with a stranger. You might feel pretty good about all this. You might feel like you're part of a Norman Rockwell painting or, better yet, part of your community, this funky place we call home.

There, I said it.

`A little timeout'

Our chief cultural correspondent, Mr. Joseph Amalfitano, reports:

"I needed a little timeout from all the news about Osama bin Laden, so Blanche and I - don't ask what happened to Maxine - have been getting out of the house and taking short trips to see and eat stuff. Maryland is my Maryland, baby. But there's a lot across the borders, too.

"One weekend we traveled to central Pennsylvania where [we] visited neat towns like Frackville and Ashland (large population of Russian Orthodox, splendid onion-domed churches) and Centralia (site of a long-smoldering underground mine fire, where the ground spits up tiny puffs of smoke). Adjacent to the smoky ground is a Russian cemetery worthy of a tour.

"What we also enjoyed [were] the unmistakable accents of the friendly Pennsylvania Dutch people and the generous servings of chow, no matter where we went in the mountains.

"Closer to home - though not that much, come to think of it - Blanche and I visited the Taste of Saigon Restaurant in Rockville, and we can't wait to return. We had an order of mussels with black bean and ginger sauce (30 of those little babies for $8.95), delicate spring rolls (two for $3.50) and a whopping bowl of pho, pronounced `phaaa' with the correct nasal intonation. It is the traditional Vietnamese soup meal with noodles, small amount of chicken, lemongrass, fresh bean sprouts on the side and a couple sprigs of mint. Go forth, discover."

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