Independent retail businesses in the suburbs are mostly ancient history.
For the people who still have a little money left at the start of the sixth calendar year under President George W. Bush, the way you spend it in 2006 is a most important consideration.
Over the past few years, I've joined a lot of other conscientious Americans in boycotting Wal-Mart, the latest in a long history of robber baron corporations striving to monopolize by destroying all competition without concern for who suffers the consequences.
This was a tough year for Wal-Mart, which took tons of public relations hits from all fronts. For me, this was a year when I began to question why Wal-Mart takes all of the heat when so many other corporate interests are likewise hell bent on destroying all that once made our cities and towns unique in this country.
Greenfield, for example
You only have to pick any small suburban town around Indianapolis to measure the devastation. When I graduated from college and took a job in nearby Greenfield a decade ago, that little city was full of independent businesses. Sure, the downtown retail district was struggling. But it wasn't dead. Mom and pop restaurants were packed with regulars with their names on their coffee cups. You could go into a hardware store and find the owner ready to offer advice on a tool or nut or bolt.
Now, after Home Depot and Super Wal-Mart came to town out by the interstate, all of the locally owned hardware stores are gone. So are the small groceries. Who needs a local sporting goods store that hires kids from the basketball team to work there summers and knows everybody by their first name when you have a mammoth Dick's? New CVS and Walgreens have replaced the independent convenience stores and the pharmacies where the man with his name on the sign filled your pill bottles.
And those mom and pop restaurants with their family pie recipes? Gone. Replaced by Applebee's and other places of that ilk - restaurants that taunt the real hometown places by pretending to be part of the community with their décor (they get team sports photos from the nearest school and post newspaper clippings) and names like "neighborhood grill."
Ten years ago, Greenfield had a local bookstore with a magazine stand, as well as a local, independent record and video store. Thank Wal-Mart and Borders and Best Buy for killing off those places across the country. Now, who chooses what we hear and what we read? To a great degree, it's the corporate buyers stocking these stores.
Wait a minute
While the independent retail and restaurant businesses in the suburbs are mostly ancient history, a few still scrape by in the city. I can walk into Luna Music or Indy CD and ask for and receive expert advice about my music purchases. At Big Hat Books, the only independent bookstore selling new books in this city, you can find the owner ready and willing to help you pick a good read. Try asking the workers at Borders or Best Buy a question sometime and see if they can answer you without the help of a computer.
While, even in the city, independent groceries are like dinosaurs clinging to life, we still enjoy a comparable wealth of independent restaurants. Many of these sell dishes from all over the world. They range from the Peppy Grill to the Mikado Inn. When you eat there, you know the money is going to a real person who lives where you live. That should leave a good taste in your mouth.
Vote with you money
That's really my point. We need to vote for the independence, for the distinctiveness, for the hands-on qualities that locally owned businesses give us with our spending in the years to come. I dread a day that is nearly already here, a day when you can wake up in any suburban area in any city in the United States and have no clue where you are: Everything looks the same. An O'Charley's there, a PetSmart here, a Bed Bath and Beyond on the corner.
But beyond the disgusting aspects of an American sameness, it's simply smart money to invest in local businesses - in real people, in your real neighbors - instead of putting your hard-earned dollars into a corporate black hole that sucks it right off to Arkansas or California or New York. Invest in our community. Invest in a future.
Why not make a New Year's resolution to think a little harder about how and where you spend your money?