Sunday, February 28, 2016

My Lenten Journey, Part 3: Big Business

A Difficult Lifestyle

This is the hardest Lenten discipline I follow. Have you ever tried to give up shopping at chain stores? Even choosing not to eat at a big chain restaurant can be challenging at times. If you're on your way home from work and you know you've got to pick up the kids and take them directly to their afterschool activities, but you want to squeeze in dinner for everyone at some point, you're not going to stop at the mom and pop restaurant with the amazing food but notoriously slow service. You're going to the local fast food place. It's just the only thing that makes sense in that situation.

Really, though, giving up chain restaurants is not the hard part. Yeah, sometimes I fail and end up eating at one, but most of the time I can avoid it if I really want to. No, the hard part is giving up chain grocery stores. Have you ever tried to do that? First of all, if you live outside of the city like I do, there may not be many other options to choose from. I said in a recent post that my town once had a small locally owned grocery store, but it closed when a big chain opened a store out on the highway. When there was a small store just a few blocks from my house (and no chain store in town at all) giving up the chain store was really just a matter of dealing with the limited selection, higher prices, and shorter hours of operation at the local place. Those were challenges, yes, but easy to overcome. Now, however, there is no local place to buy groceries in my hometown at all. For a full grocery run that's okay, because I typically pick and choose which store I go to for that anyway, often driving ten or fifteen minutes to find the best selection or lower prices. Driving ten miles for an emergency milk run, on the other hand, can be frustrating. But hey, it's called Lenten discipline for a reason, right?

Clothes shopping is a whole other situation altogether. I have two children who always seem to be outgrowing something, but where do I go to get clothes if the mall is off limits? When they were little, the Lenten shop local rule meant going to a children's consignment shop, but now they're getting too big for a lot of the clothes we can find there. The thrift shop is an option, too, but still a challenge for people with preteens. Why? Because that's an age when kids tend to get picky about their clothes. So far I haven't heard them say, "You want me to wear used stuff? How embarrassing!" I know that's probably coming in the future, but right now the challenge is more a matter of finding something that they'll wear. At the mall, you find something you like first, then see if they have it in your size. When you thrift shop, you find the rack with your size, and see if they have anything you like. When you're shopping for a finicky person, that doesn't work all that well.

A Childhood Trauma

Why is shopping local during Lent so important to me? It goes back to my childhood. Yeah, I used the word "trauma" in the heading. That may be a bit of an exaggeration. It's not like I suffer from PTSD because of this particular experience or anything like that, but nonetheless it continues to affect the way I view the world even now, so it was obviously a major event in my life.

The town I grew up in was tiny. If you saw it today, you wouldn't believe me. Today that town has Wal-Mart, Lowe's, Walgreens, Kroger, several shopping centers, and I don't even know how many fast food restaurants. But when I was growing up it was one of the smaller towns in our county. Basically we had a couple of gas stations, a local grocery store, and I think a local restaurant. I was really little, so I'm fuzzy on some of the details of that, but I seem to remember something about a restaurant.

At some point when I was in elementary school a local pizza place opened up in town. It was the only pizza place we had, so of course everyone ate there. I can remember going to a friend's birthday party there once, and even singing Christmas Carols with my Girl Scout troop out on the front steps.

Then the town began to grow, and eventually another pizza place opened up down the road. This place was not locally owned. Everyone was so excited to have a "real" pizza place in town that they started choosing it over the local shop. It wasn't long before the local shop was gone.

That experience has stayed with me my whole life. It has had such an impact on me that now, whenever I see land being cleared outside of town I think to myself, "Oh no...what now?" My heart breaks for all of the local businesses that are going to close down within a year because they can't compete with whatever it is that's coming. And I have seen those local businesses close down again and again. It's a never-ending cycle.

A Complicated Topic

Am I right in observing this yearly boycott of big business? Does it actually accomplish anything good in the world? The truth is I really don't know. I would love to see a world where most businesses are small, but if we took the corporate world we live in now and changed it into the world of my dreams, would we have done a good thing? Love them or hate them, we all have to admit that corporations form the backbone of our economy. If we all banded together and said, "No big business!" we might succeed in saving countless mom and pop establishments across the country. I would be tempted to look at that and think of it as a good thing, but would it be? What if the big businesses ended up having to close down their own stores because no one was shopping there anymore? How many people would be out of a job then? And then, of course, there's always the chance that one of the local places we saved would start bringing in so much business that it's owners decide to open up a second shop across town. Then the two shops become three, then four, then...well, I think you see where I'm going with this. The truth is there's no perfect world and even if there were there's no one who would know how to build it because what benefits one group of people could end up hurting another. Most of the issues we face are more complicated than we want to admit, and there are no easy solutions. So we do good when we get the chance and hope that someone, at least, will reap the benefits.

Paying It Forward

Because giving up big business is a manifestation of my "smaller is better" worldview, I feel that just doing that is my way of giving back in this area. I'm shopping my values and carefully choosing where I spend my money. I may not be building a perfect world, but I'm trying my best to tidy up one tiny piece of it.

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