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PERSPECTIVE: Big boxes and small towns; is another change coming?

Even though an estimated 115 million Americans rushed to malls and big box stores for Black Friday sales, others were reporting that the annual spend-a-thon has lost its bang.

Gone, to some degree, is the thrill of the stampede, the fist-fights over a big screen, the trample to grab the last Soggy Doggy.

In a Washington Post story, one Alabama veteran of weeklong parking lot campouts lamented that his Best Buy store had closed owing to Americans’ changing spending habits. But even he admitted to shopping more online these days. Might big stores face the same fate as the small retailers they’ve put out of business in recent years? Are we witnessing the revenge of Mom and Pop?

It would seem so. By 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, online shoppers had spent $1.52 billion via computers, tablets and smartphones, and the number is expected to break records at $100 billion by the end of the holiday shopping season.

Some of us have wondered why anyone would stand in line — or camp out! — just to shop. But low prices apparently justify the inconvenience for many, while others simply enjoy the fun of the crowd, the energy, as well as the $2.50 coffee maker. What’s not to love when the alternative is day-old turkey and all-day football?

Alas, it seems, trends suggest that we’ll soon be shopping while also catching a game until the human anatomy resembles a large cushion with small hands redesigned only to push buttons.

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Lest we despair and trudge over to the fridge for some leftover cold comfort, there are hopeful signs that humanity may yet reinvent itself and resist the summons of mass-marketed gluttonous consumption. A few items that caught my eye: Young people are moving back to farming; small towns are being revitalized and attracting young families who once might have elected to live in the ‘burbs; and local governments are finding grant monies to revitalize their downtowns and support small businesses.

For people living in small towns and mid-size cities, “local” is the new orange.

What’s at play, one may infer, is that the “human” in human being is enjoying something of a revival. Too much of everything has spawned a backlash manifested in a preference for simplicity. The impulse to acquire celebrated by an older generation has given way to an appreciation for what one has among younger people. This may be a function of generally having less to spend, but something less prosaic might also be at work.

The frantic immersion in material gratification symbolized by Black Friday is the precise opposite of spiritual connection or interpersonal engagement. The person fighting a neighbor for a laptop or powering past a pregnant woman for first dibs on a stroller probably isn’t bothering to make eye contact, much less consider the other’s well-being. Thus, the lure of the small town or the farm may be seen as an existential rejection of the anonymous life one often experiences in large cities. Just as some find the city essential to a rich and varied life, others seek escape from the grind of the white-collar factory and associated disassociations.

To every upside, alas, is a downside. If the manic pace of the metropolis can be exhausting, small-town life absent a rich cultural dimension and economic prosperity can be soul-crushing. Recognizing this, there has also been an upsurge in downtown revitalization initiatives, from the National Main Street Center Inc. to federal and state grants to help small towns leverage their assets for economic development.

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As just one example, the National Main Street Center, which began in 1980 as a non-profit subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has worked with 2,200 communities to rehabilitate close to 246,000 buildings, create more than 500,000 jobs and reinvest $59.5 billion. That’s not quite a Black Friday shopping day, but there’s hope therein for small businesses to rebound and prosper.

Down the road, rural communities are seeing an uptick in smaller-scale, family-owned operations as young, college-educated families trade concrete for soil. Between 2007 and 2012, the USDA reports 2,384 new farmers between ages 25 and 34. During the same time, however, 100,000 farmers aged 45 to 54 abandoned the plow.

Thus, the numbers don’t foretell a renaissance of the small farmer. But a perceptible shift away from quantity toward quality amid an appreciation for authentic human exchanges seems a hopeful sign as we enter the season of giving. Shopping locally is good for everybody. And, let’s not forget, the best gifts come in small packages.

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