Greene: Simple Notions

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(HOST) As commerce practices adapt to satisfy new demands, commentator
Stephanie Greene has been reflecting on some of the ways we’ve met our
basic needs in the past.

(GREEN)  I need to replace a closure on a
pair of pants. This requires a hook and eye, needle and thread. This
repair takes under five minutes – it’s a simple task.

Procuring
such basic supplies, however, is not easy at all. In fact, it is easier,
by far, to buy a car in southern Vermont than it is to get hold of
these fasteners.

How could there be no local store that sold such a small but strategic item?
 
The
way this used to work was you would go to any well appointed five and
dime, general or even hardware store to an area selling "notions" and
buy the sewing implements you needed. If your project was more involved –
for dressmaking, say – you’d go to a cloth and ribbon counter, many of
which were in local department stores. For a larger selection of cloth,
you could go to a mill end or specialty store.

Needless to say, most of those stores are gone, and even Walmart is scaling back its sewing section.

In
the 19th century, there were peddlers. Welcomed onto lonely farms, they
brought small necessities in their packs like knives, needles, razors,
thread and combs, as well as news and gossip. The peddlers who traveled
on foot were mostly young, strong and enterprising, trekking the
backwoods while building up their inventory to include shoes,
inexpensive jewelry, clocks and yard goods. The occasional scoundrel,
who sold re-dried tea or cigars made from oak leaves, tainted the
profession, but by and large, it all worked well.

Hard work and
careful managing would, with luck, bring in enough capital to open a
store. Many of the great retail magnates started out as peddlers:
Richard Sears of Sears Roebuck catalogues, and George Hartford of
A&P markets, and Alfred Fuller, who started the Fuller Brush
Company.

Salesmen were joined on the road by traveling federal
justices, itinerant preachers, tinsmiths, tailors and portrait painters,
as well as blacksmiths and repairmen. What a parade it must have been!
Far from an alarming event to have a stranger at your door, they were
usually invited in for a mug of cider and a bit of news before the
business began.

Now we have the Shopping channel and the
Internet; but what we’ve gained in reach and variety of goods we’ve lost
in human contact.
 
But peddlers may make a comeback, perhaps
with a fancier name. As more people work at home and gas prices continue
to rise, the fuel efficiency of well-planned delivery routes becomes
more compelling. Home deliveries of groceries are already a suburban
staple, with errand-running services on the rise. Palo Alto-based
futurist Jamais Cascio, founder of Open the Future, even envisions local
deliveries by robots, though I doubt he’s experienced mud season.

As
I keep my eye peeled for a package of hooks and eyes, I’ll have to make
do with UPS deliveries. Unfortunately you can’t yet go into the truck
and choose just what you’d like. Wouldn’t that be fun?

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