Monday, February 17, 2014

If You Close Your Eyes, Madison, Does It Almost Feel Like Nothing's Changed At All?

Last year, I told myself I would not write another snarky post about big box stores.   This, for 2 reasons.  First, I don’t want to sound like a broken record.  Those are hard to play on phonograph machines.  Also, kids under 20 don't even know what a record is, so they will just be confused.  Second and most important -- while I am fond of quoting Jack Black, that the world is turning to poop – my online editorial about Target wasn't too popular either. 
Now, citizens of poop world, let me say this.  I’m no economist.  As far as I’m concerned, the Futures Market is a room full of gypsies with crystal balls.  And I do realize that big box superstores aren’t the only places that sell enormous quantities of cheap consumer goods made in unregulated work environments, ship them across the planet, and then stuff them into dozens of plastic bags at checkout.  As I’ve written elsewhere, there are even problems with relative do-gooder retailers like Whole Foods.   Though last time I checked, Target didn’t list out the origin or environmental rating next to either its porch furniture or its “fresh foods.”

Still, I was surprised by the overwhelmingly negative response to my little article.   As my readers so politely articulated, my argument was naïve, waging class-warfare, annoying, inaccurate, whiny, and dumb.  And that's exactly what makes the internet so awesome.   One can share her or his opinions with a wider audience, and that audience is free to make harsh comments that will never go away.   Television is a blessing and a curse.  Anonymous internet bitching is a right and a gift.
Everyone had a slightly different take on exactly why I’m an idiot.  One person said Target would not undermine local business, because the neighborhood was not urban.  Another person said Target wouldn’t increase traffic because the neighborhood was already so urban.   My favorite unidentified person praised Target for being so well-stocked and convenient.  He gave the example of how he often urgently needs things.  Like, paper towels.  And a lemon juicer.   Prior to this comment, I had not realized that lemon juicers were such a critical kitchen appliance.  And it definitely is a relief to know that recalcitrant lemon juicers in Madison will now never have to hand squeeze a lemon again.  Not even for one day.  

Had I been so inclined, I suppose I could have left a follow-up comment in regards to the fact that – had he really needed an emergency lemon juicer before Target built its fourth store in town -- there was already a locally-owned kitchen store (Wisconsin Cutlery) one block away.   That sells lemon juicers.   And there was already a Walgreen’s across the street.  That sells paper towels.  As well as a locally-owned grocery store (Metcalfe’s) that was – let’s see -- oh yes.  Right next door.

There were other perspectives on my idiocy.  One woman pointed out that “compact urban development” was the wave of the future for urban planning.  “WHAT is the author thinking?” she asked, rolling her eyes with capital letters.  People who previously had to drive four miles in any direction to shop at Target, could now schlep their Target supplies back home in their bike baskets and “folding personal shopping carts.” 

Wait.  Whoa.  Stop right there, Olmstead.   It’s fine to roll your eyes at me in the comment section of an online newspaper.  But if you’re gonna get all urban, I must ask you: What the fuck is a folding personal shopping cart?  Everyone in New York knows the proper term for those is Granny Carts.  Or in the ethnic Slavic neighborhood of Chicago where my mom grew up: Bohemian Zephyrs.  If you’re going to cite the urban cultural traditions that Target is supporting with its new compact urban superstore -- which I have noticed, is so routinely packed with people pushing around their folding personal shopping carts – then let’s get our terminology right. 

But no, I get it.   We all need more paper tablecloths.  Washable, reusable ones are just so hard to use.  And even though you can get those at both Metcalfe’s and Walgreen’s, you can’t ALSO go to ONE store and get a video game, a bath mat, and a gallon jug of lighter fluid.  Plus, if you want a plasma TV on that SAME shopping trip, you can then load all of that into your folding fucking personal shopping cart for your short walk home.

So no.  I’m not going to write a post about Home Depot.   I'm not going to write about how almost nobody who works there ever seems to know anything about the products they sell.  Or about how even if they did, finding someone to help you in that store is a little bit like finding a public bathroom in New York City.   I will not be the one to say that if you shop at Home Depot because it’s convenient to go there for drywall and light bulbs and a new toilet seat --  and then since it's so convenient, you stop at their garden store and buy a few poinsettias and a Valentine’s Day bonsai tree – then you might be contributing to the demise of a local, family-owned garden store. 
I’m not going to write that.  Because then, when Home Depot opens another store in the heart of town and everyone cheers, I will be an idiot again.

But I am going to write about Johannsen’s Greenhouses.  Because that store is gone now.   In the State Journal story about the closing, Karen Johannsen DID NOT SAY that the cultural hegemony of stores like Home Depot was the main reason they closed.   First of all, normal people don’t use words like cultural hegemony.  Just snooty academics.   Also, the article emphasized that the Johannsens wanted to take advantage of a solid offer to buy the lot, in anticipation of their retirement.  That totally makes sense.  

Of course, if you read the article, you'll notice she did say this: The independents are going away. I don’t care if you’re selling nails, books, or steaks,” she said. “Our youth has been brought up on Home Depot and the big-box [stores].”

Actually, one of the owners (who shall remain anonymous here, because this is the internet and because I can't remember which one it was) said something a lot like that to me last year.  Before they announced they were closing, I knew they were probably closing.  And I was thinking about that conversation recently, because someday soon -- or maybe in six months -- it will be spring.   I’m sad about Johannsen’s closing, because I used to go there all the time.  I didn't go because they were the cheapest option, or the most convenient, or even the most friendly.  In fact, sometimes the person helping me was downright cranky.  But I don’t mind that, because I’m usually the same way.  

No, the reason I shopped there was because those cranky garden gnomes knew a shitload about plants.  They knew what perennials would grow under oak trees.  They knew what indoor plants would survive in our cold, workout space.  (Or as I call it, our dead body room.)   They knew that poinsettias are not great holiday flora for devoted cat owners, because they are mildly toxic.  And they knew that bonsai trees are not a traditional Valentine’s Day gift.   They just aren’t.     

There was another reason I loved it.   I had great memories of it from childhood.    My mom has always shopped there.  My mom is an non-recovering gardenaholic.  Several times a year when I was a kid -- on the way home from school, or after ballet class -- we’d stop there.  I grew up on the south side of Madison, and it was right down the highway from our house.  I loved the building, this large, rustic frame with greenhouses along the back and sides.  Its outdoor sections were filled with durable goods like mulch, soil, and adult human-sized pots.   While my mom scoured the store scooping up every sprouting petunia and snapdragon in sight, I would entertain myself by weaving in and out of the mulch bags, talking to the St. Francis statue about my dog, or playing under the tables of plants in one of the greenhouses. 

Admittedly, I didn’t particularly look forward to this excursion in the middle of the humid summer, when the greenhouses were steaming hot, and the store was packed with obsessed plant people like, uh, my mom.  But in the winter and especially early spring, when the air outside was still very cold, I totally loved it.  It was sunny.   It was toasty warm in there.  The whole place smelled like dirt and dirty water, odors which – playing there in my winter coat and wool hat and gloves – reminded me of summer.

When I spoke with that Johannsen's owner, I thought she made it sound like the link between their closing and the rise of Home Depot, etc., was somewhat more causal.   I recall her saying that the economic downturn -- in combination with the popularity of big box stores like Home Depot, which had vast gardening sections filled with cheaper and higher volume products – had reduced their business over the years.  She said it as she loaded plants into the back of my car, a personal service touch that they always practiced over there.  Good luck finding a Home Depot employee willing to cart your bonsai tree out to the parking lot.

Maybe she was just having a cranky day, and wanted Home Depot to suck on it.   Maybe she had suspected a connection between the rise of big box stores and the decline of mom and pops, but didn't say it that way to the newspaper because she didn't really know. Maybe the only way to really know is for all of us to start shopping at the new Futures Market that just opened.  Compact urban development.  I hear they give out free economic analysis with every purchase.  Those gypsies call it like they see it, too. 

Well, that's how I see it.  Mostly, I’m just sorry I won’t be able to take my own kids to Johannsen's again this spring.  So they can play in the sparsely-filled greenhouse, and drink in the smell of dirt.    I’ll think of it every time I pass by, and see the expanded Nissan dealership that is slated to take over the now empty lot.     


Anonymous said...

I think every Presidential address should begin "Now, citizens of poop world, let me say this."

Erin Elizabeth Clune said...

I'll float it up the ladder, and see who bites.

Alec Herring said...

Ahh yes, my wife had JUST picked Johansen's as her garden place for the next 40 years of her life when they announced they would shut down (not just move but vanish) like 2 weeks later!