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Small Town Virtues
Published on October 17, 2011 by Sara Foss

Over on The Reality-Based Community, Michael O'Hare ponders why political candidates are more likely to boast about growing up in a small town than a big city, and attempts to understand the virtues of growing up in a place where almost everyone knows your name.

O'Hare quotes from a piece by Sara Bishop, in which she describes her small town childhood in Bishop, Calif., and the thriving small businesses that were once the lifeblood of the community. She writes, "In my mind’s eye, I can walk up and down Main Street of my hometown as it was 30 years ago and easily name 50 thriving small businesses, each of which was supporting at least one middle-class family, often two or three  (and I can usually name the families, too, because one of them was mine). On the profits they made from these businesses, these families were able to own nice middle-class houses, send their kids to college, take vacations, buy new cars, and generally live the American Dream as we understood it then.

Several things happened to put an end to that. First, K-mart moved into town, and in short order shut down several of the sporting goods stores, at least one book store, one family-owned pharmacy, two hardware stores (one of which had been in business since 1888), the local dairy, and a couple of dozen other core businesses. The result was a significant loss of middle-class, independent jobs, which were only partly replaced by the deeply inferior $6.50/hour jobs offered at the new store."

O'Hare then suggests that his New York City childhood wasn't so very different from Robinson's. He writes, "Along Third Avenue in Manhattan, within two blocks north and south of 30th St., were several dozen retail stores, all family-owned, plus a large commercial hardware store and an A&P that passed, in New York of the period, for a 'supermarket.'  I was known by sight if not by name to almost all these merchants and could go to and fro along that busy big-city street in complete safety. The shoe repair/newsdealer/hat cleaner  (men’s hats (i) were worn and (ii) needed to be cleaned and reblocked from time to time) was run by Messr’s (or Signori) Petrillo and Fabrizio; Petrillo knew I was only allowed to buy one comic book a day and enforced the rule, but Fabrizio was a pushover and would let me get out with two at a time.

Outside the A&P  there were usually two or three perambulators with babies in them (strollers, and urban paranoia, were still to come), the proprietors inside shopping. My mother brought our Irish Setter, who parked under the pram and though she had no use for me (I had arrived after she was ensconced in the family), recognized that I belonged to Mom and had to be protected, so people who reached towards me to pinch my cheek or try to get a smile and a gurgle were warned off by a serious growl from below."

Both Robinson and O'Hare mourn the loss of small, family-owned businesses, which have largely been replaced by big chain stores. Having grown up in a small town myself, I much prefer spending my money at locally-owned stores and restaurants to big-box retailers. I feel more appreciated as a customer when I buy a sandwich from a family-owned deli than a Subway, and I know I always get irritated at my bank for IDing me. I've had an account at this bank for about 10 years, but the tellers are always different, and there's little in the way of meaningful personal interaction when I go there. This is a lot different from the bank where my parents did business when I was a kid; at that bank, the teller always said hello to me and gave me a free lollipop. Back then, I actually enjoyed going to the bank, which seemed like a friendly and vibrant place. Now I just hope to get in and out of the bank without too much aggravation, and with my anonymity intact.

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