Editorial cartoon 12/4/19

It's at this time of the year, as Christmas shopping shifts into high gear, that I get nostalgic for those good old days.

We didn't need "Buy Local" campaigns back then, because we were part of an economy where local businesses were the first choice of most American shoppers and, for the most part, were thriving enterprises.

I often hark back to the days when my hometown, little New Glarus — barely over 1,200 people plus the surrounding family farm community — supported five mom-and-pop grocery stores, four locally-owned auto dealerships, three hardware stores, two drug stores, a well-stocked dime store, a furniture and appliance store and, of course, 12 locally-owned taverns.

Everyone seemed to earn a living, and each contributed to the community in many ways. They sponsored youth sports leagues, bought shirts for bowling teams, helped underwrite the school play and the school's athletic programs and contributed regularly to the church.

After moving to Madison a few years later, we could do all the Christmas shopping on just one trip around the Capitol Square, visiting great local department stores like Harry S. Manchester, the Emporium, Wolff Kubly Hirsig, men's clothiers like the Hub, Karsten's — "the dress store of Madison" — Spoo and Sons for fancy shoes, Yost's for women's clothing, Wisconsin Felton Sporting Goods, just for starters. The bottom line is that what you spent here, for the most part, stayed here.

Those days are long gone, done in by giant national retailers who opened in big shopping malls far from downtown that were perceived to be more convenient and offered lower prices. Walmart added to the demise of New Glarus-sized local Main Streets, and the big auto companies yanked dealerships from the little guys who'd sell a dozen or so cars a year.

Now there's even more pressure on the local merchants that are left. Tim Wu, a Columbia University law professor and author of "The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age," penned a New York Times column a few days ago lamenting the passing of a neighborhood hardware store in Manhattan. It could no longer weather the double whammy of skyrocketing rents and the penchant of customers to order from Amazon online.

Wu told the story of the Russian immigrant who opened the hardware in the early 1990s and thrived by offering customers not only convenience but service, only to now succumb to the online phenomenon.

"In today's economy, returns on investment have shifted away from the individuals like Mr. Feygin (the store's owner) who take personal risks," he wrote. "Instead, wealth is being routed to large middlemen, national monopolies, property owners and shareholders."

And so today, folks need to be reminded about the importance of preserving and promoting the local businesses that still persevere alongside the giant chains.

"Dane Buy Local" is an organization that's been around for more than 10 years now, and its membership has grown to more than 600 small businesses throughout the county. Its aim is to remind consumers that it's wise to patronize local merchants, if for no other reason than to bolster the local economy.

According to several national economic studies, it's estimated that 48% of each purchase at local independent businesses is circulated locally, compared to 14% of purchases at chain stores. And even better, the stronger the local business community, the stronger its civic involvement and support for good causes.

No, we'll never return to those days where five mom-and-pop stores could survive in the smallest of our communities, but through our support, we can keep those who still represent the fabric of our communities alive and well.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.  

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