Looking For the Quirky, Locally Owned Stores

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I have spent dozens of hours on the road the past few months, peddling books, taking a road-trip vacation, and visiting friends. A few days ago, my Beautiful Mystery Companion and I took our daughter Abbie to DFW airport. After that, in a rare moment of weakness, I offered to take my BMC to her two favorite shopping stores — Home Goods and TJ Maxx. My BMC is not a huge shopper but loves occasionally whiling away a few hours looking for bargains —possible Christmas or birthday presents for others. Usually, I bring a book and find a chair in the mall, but these were free-standing stores — and it was 98 degrees outside. Home Goods had chairs for sale, but I figured sales associates might look askance at me plopping down in one for a few hours to read. So I wandered around, trying not to put a damper on my wife’s shopping excursion. I bought a shirt.

As we left and headed down I-635 to our favorite Dallas-area Tex-Mex restaurant, she remarked on how the shopping centers we passed all looked the same, with the usual assortment of stores and chain restaurants — a Bed, Bath & Beyond is joined by Best Buy and Michaels, with Olive Garden and On the Border restaurants plopped in front of the parking lots. Not far away will be a Home Depot or Lowe’s, often both. Several miles down the highway will be another cluster of similar chain stores and restaurants.

I was in Chihuahua City, Mexico, a few years ago for a magazine story. Before we set out on our daily excursion into the desert to interview ejido farmers, we stopped at a Starbucks in this city of 800,000. As we waited in line, I looked around and saw all the aforementioned stores lined up just as they are in America — including a Walmart. I had to turn the other direction to see stores whose signs were in Spanish.

This is not to pass judgment on modern shopping habits. After all, we had just spent a couple hours in two chain stores. But my natural predilection whenever practical is to seek out those stores and restaurants that are one-of-a-kind — the locally owned bookstore instead of a Barnes & Noble, the hole-in-the-wall burger joint in place of Fuddruckers, the mom-and-pop hardware store a few miles from the Big Orange Box. That is becoming increasingly hard to do. The irony is that now many major retailers are struggling because of the explosion in online shopping. Toys ’R’ Us is liquidating. Sears is on life support. Other companies shuttering storefronts include Foot Locker, Abercrombie & Fitch, Bon Ton and Macy’s. I am not exactly bereft about this, though I hate it when folks lose their jobs. But I rarely darkened the doors of any of these places.

My two favorite types of homegrown retail establishment are bookstores (of course) and hardware stores. Happily, both seem to be making comebacks. When traveling through small towns, I keep an eye out for both and usually stop to peruse the merchandise. A few months ago, while in Canyon, out in the Texas Panhandle, I visited the town square and hit the Daily Double. This college town of about 15,000 on its square had both the Burrowing Owl bookstore and Johnston’s Hardware, plus a non-Starbucks coffee shop. All were quirky, welcoming establishments.

My soft spot for bookstores harkens to the Golden Hour Book Store here in Longview, which Jim and Julia Barron started in 1972, my junior year in high school. It has since evolved into the popular Barron’s, with a fine restaurant, merchandise and books by local authors, including yours truly. Their plunge into bookselling is a big reason I found a partner and started a bookstore in Nacogdoches in 1974, using the proceeds from selling a VW Bus for my half of the money. It failed, of course, since I was 19 and thus low on both capital and common sense. But my love for indie bookstores remains. Around here, the Bookstore in Kilgore, The Bosslight in Nacogdoches, and Gladewater Books are favorite haunts. The Holy Grail is Book People in Austin, of course. Participating in a book signing there a few weeks back scratched an item off the bucket list.

Johnston’s Hardware in Canyon reminded me of Cason-Monk, which for decades was a town staple in Nacogdoches. It finally fell victim to the times, but other stores still persevere. My first choice when needing a widget, plumbing supplies or a DIY part is a locally owned hardware store five minutes from home. On the rare occasions what I need can’t be found there, I shake my head and say, “Guess I’ll have to go to the Big Box Store.” The owner invariably commiserates.

I would prefer to see 50 Subways bite the dust (500 will this year) than lose a local sandwich eatery. That’s economically illogical but emotionally and aesthetically uplifting. Besides, the folks at the local deli recognize my voice when I call in an order. How often does that happen in a chain store?

My latest book, “Yours Faithfully, J.A.: The Life & Writings of H.B. Fox, the Circleville Philosopher,” is available on my website: garyborders.com. Click on the “Books” tab. PayPal or plastic gets you a signed copy sent forthwith.

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