Slowing down…

November and December are officially noted as the “festive” season here in much of the western world. Now, I like the holidays well enough, but I don’t spend weeks or months preparing for them. I don’t try to drag them out to the point where Christmas becomes a holiday that consumes three weeks before the 25th of December and another week after it. Maybe I’m not in the minority there, but it seems that way based on the increasing number of people who are out, about, and meandering slowly through neighborhood shopping venues.

My response of choice in this scenario is to avoid those places as much as possible. It’s got the unintended side effect of having dramatically slowed down my pillaging of thrift shops and used book stores, In fact I’ve brought nothing into the inventory for the last three weeks and will probably go another five weeks before resuming the chase. Since most of the places I frequent share strip mall space with other stores, the volume of people is mostly enough to leave me uninterested… unless I know someone is hiding something uniquely interesting, in which case I’d likely make an exception.

The last months of the year are when I can make a little progress on churning through some of what I’ve already put into the holding pen. That feels good. Having lived with myself for so long, though, I also know the arrival of the holidays is also a bit of a warning sign… because it means ’round about New Years, I’ll be chomping at the bit to get back after it and have a budget line I haven’t touched in two months with which to indulge my favorite minor obsession.

There are worse things to do with your time and money, I suppose. Someday a bookcase may collapse and kill me, but hey, at least it’s not heroin.

Of groceries and new routines…

Cecil County has most of the problems every other semi-rural county in Maryland is facing – drugs, pockets of poverty, a questionable education system, and a government that occasionally verges on dysfunctional. It also has some remarkable natural beauty, low cost of living (for Maryland), and a convenient location between Baltimore and Philly that’s close to both, but far enough away to allow those who prefer the quiet life to avoid big city fuckery.

What the county lacks, however, are the kind of supermarkets I got use to while living in the DC exurbs or during my west Tennessee exile. The local Food Lion is convenient, but comes with limited options. Walmart has decided they’re no longer interested in my money. There’s an Acme, a company that I assumed had gone out of business 20 years ago, but its location in the heart of Elkton attracts a certain element that I’d just rather not step over, walk around, or studiously pretend to ignore just to get my weekly shopping done.

I happened to be off my usual Saturday path last week, which put another option in reach. Even looking a little dated and feeling like the aisles were too cramped by half, Safeway has it all over any of the more local options. It’s not a Kroger or a Giant, but by comparison to what I’ve gotten use to out of convenience there’s no contest.

As much as I am a creature of habit, I’m also adaptive enough to adjust when there is a better alternative available. I hate the idea of adding an extra 20 minutes to the standard Saturday errands run (and probably spending a bit more than I would otherwise on groceries), but the trade off with more and better options is too enticing… and makes me wish I’d have reconciled myself with driving to Delaware for groceries much sooner.

I’m reasonably sure the hardest part of all this will be remembering that the new routine takes me across the county from west to east instead of east to west. Pity me my first world problems.

An uneasy peace…

After the better part of three weeks, Amazon and I have arrived at an uneasy peace. They’ve stopped repeatedly trying to get me to pay for an item that’s already been paid for (and one that’s already been returned) and I’ve grudgingly accepted that Amazon has become an almost indispensable purveyor of “stuff” for my household.

The fact that it took a last gasp, hail Mary email to Jeff Bezos to grab a human being’s attention and get them to override the automatically generated email loop from hell I was trapped in still doesn’t leave me brimming with confidence.

I spent a fair amount of the last three weeks looking at and ordering from other online retailers, so I know there are alternatives to Amazon. What those alternatives don’t provide en block, are free shipping and access to the same exhaustive product list that Amazon does, so I found myself replacing one company with perhaps half a dozen in order to cover the same retail territory.

With that experience, I will admit that when Amazon is working well, they’re a hard act to beat… but when they freeze you out, they freeze you all the way out. I was, despite becoming increasingly aware of the inconvenience, prepared to stay frozen out indefinitely, but I’m glad it didn’t come to that in the end.

Amazon is never going to be a company I love, but in the end they are a company I can do business with – at least when it comes to ordering things that can stand to be badly packaged and beat to hell and back in transit. As it turns out, achieving peace in our time doesn’t mean I’m going to stop calling them out for that at every possible opportunity. You could have probably guessed that.

National treasures…

There’s a local shop about five minutes drive from the house where you can get bread, milk, eggs, smokes, lottery tickets, a six pack of select domestic or import beer, a selection of $8 wines, and hot or cold made-in-front-of-you deli sandwiches. It’s plopped down at an intersection where two or three different deeply exurban neighborhoods come together. If you weren’t use to seeing it there, it might even look out of place.

The fact is, mom and pop shops like Cooper’s Market aren’t just a local resource – letting someone skip the drive all the way into town if they only need one or two things and don’t mind paying the premium – they’re also a national treasure. They’re the natural home for local news and gossip – and even though I’m nowhere near a local in these parts, if you keep your ears open you can always find out who got arrested, who’s kid is doing “the drugs” or got knocked up, what house burned, or what the useless county commissioners got wrong this time.

Maybe it’s the kind of place that’s nostalgic only if you grew up in small town America, where they were the rule rather than the exception. It’s nice to know that there are still a few of them around. I like having the option of the big chain stores when I’m already out in the more densely developed parts of the world, but here in my little section of it I much prefer the familiarity of the human being who knows what you’re going to order before you even get to the head of the line.

Sometimes smart isn’t enough…

I’m a reasonably smart guy. I’ve never hidden that fact or been embarrassed by it the way some people seem to think you should be. There are, however, times when native brain power just isn’t enough.

This morning I went through my usual Saturday – did things like take a load of trash to the landfill, stop by the bank, and roll past Tractor Supply for the biggest bag of bird food available. Then I made my fatal mistake.

You see, today is Saturday. I didn’t think of it as anything other than Saturday. One of 52 that we get every year. It’s the day of the week even I get groceries. What every other person in the county apparently thought of today as, however, is “the last Saturday before Thanksgiving when they should take the whole family to the supermarket and pick up three carts full of food.”

It didn’t even occur to me. If it had, I’d have changed the plan and done my shopping at 5am to avoid the masses. I should have known better, should have been more aware. I was awash in a vast see of dumb as hell and have no one to blame but myself.

Mercifully I’m home now. If you want me to leave, setting the place on fire is probably the only way to shake me loose… and even that isn’t guaranteed to get the job done.

Just different…

I’m old enough to have caught the tail end of what could be called “local retail.” When I was a kid even our small town of a few hundred had what in generations past would have been called a dry good store. My home town wasn’t big enough to justify its own hardware store, but the next town of any size in either direction along the George’s Creek valley had one – Pritchard’s in Frostburg anchored the central stretch of Main Street, Ternent’s in Coney sat (where it still does business) at the center of town on Jackson Street. Ames provided a primitive “big box” style of retail while G.C. Murphy represented the last bastion of traditional American department stores. Murphy’s, though, was “in town” and usually involved a special trip. You didn’t end up there to pick something up on a whim.

There was a proper 1980’s mall, of course, decorated in shades of beige with it’s glass dome and sunken fountain centerpiece. It was anchored by JC Penny, The Bon Ton / Eyerly’s, K-mart, and Sears.

I’m taking this stroll down memory lane because of all these stores – many of them one-time giants of American retail, only a handful remain. Ternent’s lives still, I suspect as much due to the loyalty of the surrounding community (and inconvenience of making the 30 minute one-way drive to the next closest hardware store) as anything else. JC Penny creaks along providing the area with “something that isn’t Walmart. Now Sears has filed for bankruptcy protection. Its lone store back home isn’t on the closure list this time, but I don’t think anyone really expects it will last forever or even that it will last long. It’s only a matter of time before Sears too becomes part of consumer history.

Protected here by my walls of books and largely tucked away from people to the extent I can manage, it’s easy to dismiss just how much the world has changed in the last 30 or 40 years. A guy I use to work for was fond of saying that on average “it’s not better or worse, it’s just different.” It’s a nice sound bite and maybe it’s even true. But I can tell you without a moment’s shame that the older I get the less interest I have in “different” overall. Slowly, the words “different” and “worse” feel like they’re becoming synonymous.

I know intellectually that bankruptcy delivers creative destruction to the marketplace, but I’d consider it an awfully big favor if we could somehow avoid sweeping away all vestiges of the world that was.

Two out of three…

I have a standing order with Amazon to deliver dog food, cat food, and litter on a monthly basis. It hasn’t been an altogether satisfying relationship thus far. Two out of the last three orders have been what I’ll just call “defective.” Today’s order included a bag of cat food in fine shape, a box of cat litter in fine condition, and a bag of dog food with a blown out corner that emptied half the bag’s contents out into the shipping box.

Look, the dogs loved the fact that I schlepped this 50 pound box through the middle of the house trailing kibble behind me, but it wasn’t the kind of experience I’d have paid for if given the opportunity. I’m a simple guy who just wants things to arrive undamaged. I don’t feel like that’s really an unreasonable position on my part as the consumer.

I dutifully fired up Amazon’s customer service chat and to their credit they immediately offered to ship out another bag of food or give me a refund. The Amazon business model is a real wonder of the modern – as it seems it’s cheaper for them to replace every fourth or fifth thing I buy than it is to spend a few extra cents on proper packaging for their products.

Amazon isn’t the only game in town, but they are generally the most convenient for setting up recurring orders so I’ll keep using them. They’ll keep sending out items in piss poor packaging. I’ll keep sending for replacements. And the whole machine will keep on working. Somehow, though, it feels like there could be a better way.