I went to the new Costco with a friend the other day, my first time. The big box store sits at the cusp of Uptown New Orleans on a long-abandoned (since Katrina) patch of land that used to be a strip mall right off the interstate. Construction was a long, ghastly process that involved rerouting streets and adding stoplights. Maybe it’s just me but seems like you have to have a hefty dose of arrogance to do that much work for a business that could potentially fail. Anyway, that’s not the point of why I’m writing this.
As we walked around the seemingly endless aisles of neatly packaged, processed foods in what looked like lifetime supplies, stopping at the sampling stations to eat tiny cups of lentil soup and pieces of almond biscotti, I tried to put a word on what I was feeling, or rather the feeling of the store. Isolated. Antiseptic. Those were two words that came to me later. And now—Dead. Ok more like comatose. It had a pulse, but weak. I imagined this is what all shopping will be like in the future. A “Wall-E” kind of life. All of us pushing our enormous shopping carts, filling them with chemical-saturated “food” items—that is if we can still walk right?
A few days after that shopping experience I had to go buy some shoes for my son. My first thought was another big box store, where all the shoes are stuffed on shelves that you have to dig through to hopefully find the pair you like, in the size you need, with both shoes in the box. Oh, and no one helps you. You have to wander around just to find someone who works there, only to have them tell you if it isn’t on the shelf, they don’t have it.
I was about to head there when I remembered there’s a kids’ shoe store, Haase’s, on historic Oak St. I almost nixed it because I assumed the prices would be too high but I figured why not. It was a beautiful day and if nothing else I could enjoy the walk. As soon as I walked in I was greeted by a sales clerk. I named my price and the size I needed and she brought me a half dozen shoes. She sat down with me and told me what to look for in kids’ shoes, what constituted a good fit, what brands were most popular and got the most positive reviews, the whole time telling jokes. I felt like I was having tea with an old, good friend, not a saleslady I had just met. I left the store with a new pair of shoes for my son, practically in tears over the excellent service I received. I wanted to kick up my heels or do a Fred Astaire spin around a lamppost.
I chided myself for being silly. It was just an errand, a trip to a shoe store. But it was a reminder to me of why shopping local, and shopping small stores, matters. That big Costco stands like an impenetrable fort. It has the financial power to move streets. That little shoe store, established in 1921, doesn’t have that power. It’s not a fort. It’s more like a cozy little cave. And I hope it never leaves.