Retail With a Local Soul

Equal parts gingerbread cookies and painful reminders of our hectic and commercialized lives, there’s no getting around the Holiday season. For starters, it is a ritual that requires an intimidating amount of shopping. This is ‘the big one’: 20 percent of all retail sales happen over the Christmas season.

You can take on that particular challenge (although for many ‘ordeal’ is perhaps a more accurate term) in many ways. You can mindlessly procure the items on lists you’ve been given (complete with carefully researched prices and part numbers), or you can try to divine which bit of plastic blessed with artificial intelligence will be the hot ticket item desired by all this year. Good luck with that. You can also be more zen about it, and just try to find the right thing for everybody. Regardless, shopping is a must.

You can shop online, or you can head down to Route 12A in Lebanon. There are differences, of course: busy times on the road to Plainfield sets you up for the kind of retail therapy that could only be proscribed by a masochistic shrink, while shopping online provides much better parking, but comes with a lifetime of email spam and the odd ennui caused by dealing with disembodied salesmen. Perhaps you’re inclined to consider a different approach this year?

The Local First Alliance makes great arguments for keeping it local: a smaller carbon footprint, your money stays in the community, you’re supporting a neighbor, buying from a friend, and while doing so, you’re keeping your town vibrant. But equally important from a shopper’s perspective is the uniquely curated retail experience; your local merchants have done the hard lifting for you, weeding through all the chaff, and giving you a manageable number of great items from which to pick. And the retailers themselves are on hand with their infinite wisdom, patience, and insight into their products to help you choose.

Norwich obviously can’t deliver the semi-disposable electronic junk your nephew so desperately wants for his PlayStation, nor do our local retailers have a direct line to the bottomless pits of plastic and child labor in China. But for everyone on your list, they will have something. No, that’s not to say that you should give your loved ones galvanized screws and sushi from Dan & Whit’s. Instead, Dan Frasier suggests a basket of Vermont-made goods, like Lake Champlain chocolates; a pair of the fun, mismatched and cozy SolMate socks (made just up the road in Strafford), or a solid, handmade wooden wine stand that would go well with a bottle of Dan & Whit’s own label red or white.

Speaking of wine, Peter at Norwich Wines & Spirits is quick to point out that his prices are the same – or better – than what you’d find on 12A, even with the sales tax, but every bottle in his shop has been handpicked for its quality.  As a great gift for the wine lover, he suggests a magnum (the huge, double bottles) or two presented in a nice wooden box.

Not surprisingly, the Norwich Bookstore offers lots of interesting and carefully chosen reads for long winter nights.  Give them a few days’ notice, and they will order any book you could get from and have it wrapped and ready for you. Liza at the bookstore mentions their frequent author visits and the Book Angels project as other great reasons to support a local, independent bookstore (more about the Book Angels elsewhere in the issue).  They’re real people who live and breathe books, and if for some reason the one you’re after is out of stock, they will rise to the challenge of finding you an alternative. It’s the kind of passion and service you just can’t get from Amazon.

Hugs are another thing you usually don’t get when shopping online. But at the J-List it can be part of the retail experience. Jill Butler is less a storekeeper and more a force of nature. Her exuberant enthusiasm and incredible ability to cram interesting trinkets into every corner of her small, cozy corner of Main Street leaves me wondering why I would ever need to go anywhere else for all my gift shopping needs. From vegan handbags to silly stocking stuffers and great gift cards, it’s all beautiful, quirky and fun.  And it’s right here in Norwich. On the other side of the square, Zuzu’s offers an equally compelling treasure trove of gift ideas at very comfortable prices. Lots of striking Marimekko designs, as well as unique items made by Norwich-based VK Pottery.

A little further afield, you could swing by the open-during-renovations retail shop at King Arthur Flour for every­thing to please the baker and chef on your list. But clearly, rather than dread and endure your Christmas shopping, it is entirely possible to enjoy the experience and be inspired by keeping it local. Not just because that’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the smart thing to do. It allows you to show your love and compassion when you give as well as when you buy.

(This story first ran in the Holiday 2011 Norwich Times)