Keep (Small) Shopping

We’ve had Black Thursday Night Friday, where we spent all day fighting crowds and staking out parking spots at the mall. Coming up is Cyber Monday, where we hit multiple “submit order” buttons while watching out for the boss’s signature sneaky walk-arounds. But the best day of all is today: Small Business Saturday, sponsored by American Express and promoted by the Small Business Administration and The 3/50 Project. If your skin is dried out and your eyes are watering from all the florescent lighting you couldn’t get away from yesterday and your sinuses are protesting all the perfume samples sprayed your way, head to the nearest hometown downtown  this morning. You will find friendly local folks who sincerely are glad you stepped into their stores and will make you feel welcome and valued. You’ll meet your neighbors. You’ll talk to visitors. And you’ll find everything you need for a memorable holiday 2012. Look, I enjoy a mall crawl as much as anybody. Sometimes you just need a Cinnabon and The Gap and disinterested employees who are paid too little for too much work to care whether you buy anything or not. Nothing wrong with that, at all. The thing is that shopping downtown with your local retailers is a different experience — it’s somehow more satisfying, as if you’re doing something good and helpful.  That’s how I felt, anyway, when I spent my Black Friday wandering around my downtown of Corinth, Miss., where I spent a little bit of or maybe some or maybe a pretty good chunk found great gifts for lots of folks on my list and perhaps a whole big bunch a few things for myself. Highlights: The fun and funky decor and jewelry at the newly opened Baxter & Me and the wearable style and creative embellishments at women’s boutique Andi Grace. I also went to the bank, the dry cleaner’s, the alterations shop, a jewelry store for a couple of repairs, the library, the coffee shop and the museum; had conversations on sidewalks; waved and smiled to tons of folks; and enjoyed brownies made and sold by the young niece of one of the store owners — all in three or four hours and a couple of blocks from the house. And to prove my dedication to supporting the local economy, I’m showing you my shopping results — without revealing specific contents. Remember — no peeking until Dec. 25!

Chattanooga, Wings and Coffee, Too

Downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee, is a seriously awesome place. I fell in love with it when I was young and my dad would drive the hour it took to get us there so we could eat at the Chattanooga Choo-Choo and then wander around the top of Lookout Mountain. Luckily, my middle brother and his family live there, so we still get to visit lots. And it’s still one of my favorite places. Chattanooga has done a stellar job of downtown renaissance and making itself into A Must-See Destination. Such as this Broad Street block that’s just up the street  from the Tennessee River and the Tennessee Aquarium. This block is home to Sticky Fingers Smokehouse, the barbecue restaurant-chain that three friends who first met as seventh-graders in Chattanooga started in 1992 in Charleston, S.C. My brother and I were there to pick up wings, pulled chicken and pulled pork for my nephew’s 12-year-old birthday party, and I have to say that Sticky Fingers’ wings rate right up there — meaty, juicy and just-right-hot.  I can see why my nephew requested Sticky Fingers for his birthday. (I think I’ll do the same, even though that means moving my birthday to a city four hours away. Worth it.) Another treasure on this block is Greyfriar’s Coffee and Tea Co., one of my brother’s top choices for coffee — and he knows coffee. And of course there’s more to Chattanooga than wings and coffee. You’ve got history, hiking, rock climbing, kayaking, shopping, music, art, more eating and more good times. Go check it out, and tell my brother I sent you.

Florence, Alabama

“Come on in. May we help you?” As soon as you push open the heavy wood and glass door and step onto the creaky floorboards, you know you’re someplace special. And that place is Wilson’s Fabrics in downtown Florence, Alabama, where northwest Alabama families have been coming for 61 years for everything from fabric for wedding dresses to emergency repair of buttons and hems. Robbie Wilson, 60, is closing the store his parents — his father was “The Tall Man with the Low Prices” — founded. At one time, the fabric business was good. From this first storefront, the Wilson family expanded their company into six stores across northwest Alabama. But after business peaked in the 1980s and ’90s (remember all those gorgeous handsmocked dresses we made back then?), the company had to close store after store until only this, the original, remained. Small local fabric shops are going the way of small local bookstores  — probably already have. “People don’t sew anymore,” said Robbie Wilson, smiling ruefully, when I went to pay my last respects at the shop earlier this week. The combination of readily available inexpensive ready-to-wear clothes and the steady rise of big box do-it-yourself chains such as Hobby Lobby and Jo Ann’s Fabrics didn’t help, either. Plus, downtown Florence took a major hit when the local family-owned department store sold out and then closed a few years ago. “But Florence is a vital and changing downtown,” Wilson said, ever optimistic. “It’s just going to go in a new direction, with new opportunities.” Someone has leased his store space and is opening a gift shop there, he added. But nothing will replace the antique cash register, the yellowing handwritten signs, the piles of fabrics and patterns in the back where you knew treasures lay hidden, just waiting to be unearthed. Like so many others, I have many Wilson’s memories. I remember chasing my brother under the fabric tables when we were little. Later, when my own children were little, I lovingly fingered fine cotton and browsed through smocking plates as I planned Easter outfits. And later still, when I worked at the newspaper office just a couple blocks away, I’d duck into Wilson’s for thread or ribbon or pins or whatever I needed for an ongoing project. Sigh. We’re going to miss you.