STEVENS POINT -- On the Saturday after the big financial meltdown of September, people milled around the farmers' market on the public square here as if nothing had happened. Of course, many of them knew otherwise. But what is a person to do? The tomatoes are ripe for only so long, and a long winter is ahead.
Besides, at times like this, we have to take care of one another here at home. Financial markets may have no conscience, but the rest of us can do better than that.
The farmers' market here isn't as well known as Madison's, but it's at least as historic. Most of the buildings on the old public square at the east end of Main Street are late 19th century or early 20th century vintage, and the farmers have been coming here to sell produce for that long. Those with Polish names like Slowinski have been joined by Hmong folks with names like Vang. The market survives even as it changes here on the end of Main Street.
The "financial crisis," as it has quickly been dubbed, has led to concern about what will happen to America's Main Streets, and the jury is still out. When pundits speculate about Main Street, they're speaking in hyperbole about communities big and small across the land, not streets.
But it doesn't hurt to think about what Main Street meant to our communities years ago. They were once the centers of trade and commerce and also the heartbeat of our communities. You wanted to go someplace exciting? You headed for downtown.
We've long since pulled away from Main Street, directed by roads and big signs to big box stores plunked down on what used to be prime agricultural land. Marketing, convenience, perceived cost savings, land use changes, the automobile and a bushel of other factors sent us scurrying.
We lost something in the scramble. Main Street as we once knew it was compellingly local. It was about the exchange of goods and services among members of a community. Today, plenty of goods are exchanged, but service is a quaint term that was pretty much ditched as "cheaper" box stores arrived. When that happened, most of the hardware stores and little clothing stores and other local shops went away. With them went the relationship of goods to services.
But some of it remains. We have a little shoe repair and sales store here in Stevens Point called Happy Feet. You can buy a good, serviceable pair of black leather shoes. The shoes might cost a few bucks more at a place like this than at one of the box stores, but it depends how you appraise cost. After walking many miles in those black shoes, they'll start to wear down a bit. Rather than running out to the box store for another pair, you can take them back to Happy Feet to be fixed for a fraction of what a new pair would cost. They'll be good for another several years. That's two for the price of one with a small repair charge. That's value.
In order for a place like this to stay in business, they have to make some sales from the floor. It works when consumer and retailer see the connection between goods and services. It is like a pact.
The hardware store is probably the classic example. They are havens of service for those of us who can hardly turn a screwdriver. A local clothing store that offers tailoring is another example among many. In many cases, the products these businesses sell are actually competitive with or cheaper than the big boxes. The locals just don't have the marketing bucks.
The growing local foods movement is one very real example of how we can take care of one another. On the public square here, you can buy almost all of your veggies and fruit from local vendors who tend local farms from May to October. The food is sometimes so cheap that it's embarrassing. Then it's time to leave a tip. Here on the public square, chances are you'll have enough left over to catch a beer at one of the locally owned bars.
What does this have to do with Wall Street and financial meltdowns? Well, if we're in for a rough ride, then we'd better think twice about how we spend our money, who we spend it with, what we spend it on and whether we get any service in the deal. If we're concerned about our communities, and we should be in good times and bad, then one of the best ways to support them is to buy local when we can and when we're happy with the products and services. Add up the costs and benefits.
It's time to stop sending our money to faraway places. It's time to come back home. It's time for a renaissance of what we had when Main Street was truly the main street. Winter's coming, and we have to take care of one another.