I heard an ad on the radio last week that Farm and Fleet would officially open its toyland section on Saturday. Times have changed since I was a boy.
I know, I know. That makes me sound real old and maybe a little grumpy. But that’s what I am, and besides, contrasting “in the day” with what happens nowadays might be instructive.
“In the day” for me was the 1950s. We had won the war; Eisenhower was president; everyone had a job; my parents were building a new house on MacArthur Drive; and I knew as early as kindergarten that I was going to go to college.
On Halloween, we’d dress up in a costume — I was a baseball player — and wore the outfit to school. Then after dinner my friends and I would get big paper bags and head out to ring as many doorbells as possible by the time we had to be home, around 8:30. After making our haul, we sat on the floor of my garage, empty out our take and proceeded to trade.
On Thanksgiving, Helen and Red Allen would always have us over to their house. Helen cooked the turkey that my dad received from the place where he worked. We’d stuff ourselves and then watch the Lions play the Packers, which was a tradition for many years. That was it. No Black Friday. No Cyber Monday.
Manitowoc, Wisconsin, where I grew up, would decorate the business streets the week after Thanksgiving but folks were too involved raking leaves and bringing the deer they’d shot to the butcher to make venison sausage to think about shopping.
Most of December was devoted to practicing the Christmas pageant at First Lutheran Church and basketball games at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School and writing letters to Santa. Those were the days when Santa still delivered to your home.
We shopped for presents the week before Christmas. Sears, where my dad worked, was open on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings and then was closed until Monday noon. Every business except the restaurants and the Jewish deli were closed on Sunday.
On the first day of Christmas vacation I’d ride the bus downtown and go to the women’s lingerie section and ask the lady, who had been there forever and knew my name, for a pair of the nylons my mother liked. “I’ve been waiting for you,” she would say with a smile. Then I’d cross the street and walk up to the candy counter at the Boston Store and buy a box of chocolate-covered cherries for my dad. Every year the same gifts in the same places in the same stores.
All of that has changed, as you well know. The merchants in town will be open on Sunday, not just after Thanksgiving, but many will be open every weekend all year round. The push to spend money has begun already and is promoted by our Chamber of Commerce with events like the casket races, the Zombie Pub Crawl and the Holiday Walk.
And I’m not criticizing them for doing that. I’ve been on the Chamber board for over 20 years and most of the merchants are not money grubbers at all. On the Friday after turkey day, they’d rather be raking leaves in their yard or playing with the grandchildren or walking through the leaves with their sweetie at Morton Arboretum than tending the store.
Laurie Kokenes, director of Forest Park’s Chamber of Commerce, explained that business owners here are making the big push for business between Halloween and New Year’s Day because “in this economy, you have to run faster and faster to just stay in the same place.”
By working long hours, coming up with creative promotions, and cooperating with fellow merchants and the village, the merchants I know are getting by. Many, in fact, left higher-paying jobs as bankers and lawyers and accountants and traders at the Merc to have the joy, and the stress, of running their own businesses.
Running faster to stay in the same place. Is it worth it? One business person answered that question by saying, “I ask myself that every day.”
So if many, if not most, of us would like life to go at a more human pace, who is to blame for the busyness in business?
You could blame online shopping. I heard one merchant say people will come into her store, try on shoes till they find a pair they like and then go home and order them online to save a buck or two.
You could blame the chain stores whose CEOs live in another state and have no idea what your name is, let alone the names of your grandchildren.
You could blame the free market system in which some entrepreneur is always upping the ante to get a competitive edge.
Or you could blame us, for being addicted to material pleasure when and where we want it. It was Carnegie or Rockefeller — I can’t remember which — who, when asked “How much is enough?” responded, “A little bit more.”
I’m not sure what to do about it. What I know is that I’m not happier now than I was when I was a kid. It’s strange. I feel both blessed and cursed by the society I live in, and I feel helpless to make it better. If I go on a rant about not being so materialistic, I feel guilty that I’m hurting the many merchants I know so well and respect, but at the same time, this pace and maybe even the race we’re running isn’t getting us to where we really want to be.