Friday, August 12, 2011


Some signs are easier to explain than others. I have seen hand-painted signs stuck in the ground along country roads that read “Eggs”, “Cucumbers” or some that say “Produce.” I hope the last one refers to things grown and raised for sale instead of a command of “get to work.”

I was driving through Wisconsin the other day with my friend Mark when we saw a sign that almost made us turn around and stop in to inquire, “Kittens $20.” No need to worry, this is not the second column in a series about kittens – this one is more about economics.

Clearly we should have stopped in to satisfy our curiosity about these cats. Instead we chose to theorize. Having seen numerous signs over the years for “Free Kittens,” we wondered if these kittens were special, even rare for this part of the country. Maybe it was just the opposite, perhaps the $20 was offered as an incentive to anyone who would take a kitten. Real money could have been made if the litter was large. Whatever their intent, no cash or cats were exchanged.

The signs seen in the downtown areas of small towns don’t require much thinking to determine their intent; “For Lease,” “For Sale.” The downtowns, those main streets that were a town’s commerce center, are dying as businesses either dry up or move away.

This situation is certainly not new, but it seems to be getting worse. When I was a kid growing up in Belle Plaine the town was much smaller than it is today, and yet in the downtown area there were four grocery stores, two hardware stores, two drug stores, a variety store, two gas stations within a few blocks of downtown, a shoe store, a couple clothing stores and several other businesses. Many of them are gone, or have moved out closer to the highway.

I don’t know for sure why this is happening. I suspect that it is due to several reasons such as shifting traffic patterns, competition, and changing market conditions, but I keep going to back to how Dad looked at supporting local businesses many years ago.

Dad had an office in downtown Belle Plaine and he was disciplined in where he shopped. He shopped in Belle Plaine. When I asked why he didn’t go elsewhere he explained it to me this way: He needed to buy his bread at the local bakery, so the baker would have money to buy a watch from the jeweler next door, so the jeweler could get his car fixed from the garage down the block, so the mechanic could buy his groceries to feed his family and the grocer would be able to keep his store open. He felt a responsibility to these merchants and he didn’t want to break the chain.

Well the chain broke and no business or store is immune. Border’s, the large book store chain, will shut its doors soon. At one time they were considered the big bully on the block that was responsible for the demise of the local independent bookstore. Now, unable to compete with Amazon and Barnes & Noble, they will close their books.

Sure it’s convenient to point and click and shop at one stop, but what will happen to the local retail merchant? This isn’t about me and my silly little office. This is about saving local businesses or soon we may be left with only the big box stores and a mouse to shop with. So please shop local when you can, or at least buy a cat to keep the mice in control. There only $20.

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