I'm a guilty Amazon Prime shopper.
Meaning, I buy a lot of stuff from Amazon because the selection is so great, as are the prices, and I usually get what I want in a few days, sometimes the next day. But I realize that local stores are at risk of going under with the steady rise of online shopping.
Hence, the guilt. Because I buy many books from Amazon, and have done so for a long time, I'm still feeling guilty about the demise of Jackson's Books way back when.
However, after reading a New York Times opinion piece about hardware stores suffering from Amazon competition, I had a pleasing sense of it won't be me that drives our local stores out of business, since I'm a frequent shopper at the south Salem Ace Hardware off of Madrona Street.
Still, the story got me worried. Here's how it starts out.
On Ninth Avenue in Manhattan, not far from where I live, there’s a small neighborhood hardware store called Chelsea Convenience Hardware, which is distinguished by its unlikely display of dozens of Russian nesting dolls in the storefront window. Inside, tools and supplies are piled to the ceiling, and when you enter, the owner, Naum Feygin, an immigrant from Boris Yeltsin’s Russia, looks up to ask you what you need.
The “convenience” in the store’s name is no misnomer, for the place is extraordinarily efficient. It is cheaper and faster than ordering from Amazon and offers expert advice that reduces the risk of buying the wrong thing. It is all too easy on Amazon, for example, to buy halogen bulbs that don’t fit your lamp base; Mr. Feygin has spared me many such headaches. And the store’s small size is a virtue: Unlike at Home Depot, you can be in and out in 10 minutes.
Nonetheless, Chelsea Convenience is set to close at the end of November, another casualty of rising commercial rents and competition from e-commerce. The closing is of no great economic significance, other than to Mr. Feygin. But it is a microcosm of the forces reshaping the United States economy, often paradoxically and for the worse. Why is a less efficient, less personalized and more wasteful way of buying screws and plungers — ordering online — displacing the local hardware store?
Tim Wu, who wrote the piece, offers up a variety of answers to that question. A concluding paragraph encapsulates a primary reason.
The fate of Chelsea Convenience shows, in its small way, that business and capitalism can be at odds — that the drive for immense capital gains can drain the life out of human-scale business. For entrepreneurs, the American economy, with its extreme centralization, is becoming more like the Soviet economy Mr. Feygim left behind.
l grew up in a small central California town that had a small hardware store akin to the Manhattan store Wu writes about. It was crammed with items, but somehow the owner could quickly find what a customer wanted amid all the chaotic messiness.
Downtown Salem's Saffron Supply is much more organized than that, but that store is pleasingly old-fashioned. I wrote about it back in 2004 in "I'm the king of the world!" After describing how the Saffron Supply staff helped me replace some plumbing parts, I ended with this passage.
The only awkward moment during my visit to Saffron Supply occurred when, in an effort to express my gratitude while the guy was writing up my purchase, I blurted out to him and several co-workers, “I could never get this sort of service at Fred Meyer or Lowe’s. You better never go out of business.”
There was no response at all to my comment, just a quick glance or two in my direction. I felt like maybe I was treading on sensitive ground. “Oh God,” I thought with more than a touch of remorse, “what if they are on the verge of going out of business?” Then I was brought back to the present moment.
“Would you like a bag?” “Sure, thank you.” My nine dollars worth of parts were put into a paper bag, the top carefully folded over, the handwritten receipt placed inside. It all felt really real. May Saffron Supply survive and prosper, and continue to produce kings of the world.
Along with other hardware stores in Salem.
A few days ago my much-beloved Stihl backpack leaf blower wouldn't run properly. I'd gotten it in 2006, and have done a crappy job of maintaining it, so I should feel lucky it lasted this long. I decided it was time to get a new Stihl blower.
I phoned the South Salem Ace Hardware. They assured me they had a variety for me to choose from. When I got to the Stihl department at the back of the store, the guy standing there asked if I wanted to talk with the Stihl specialist.
"Absolutely," I said. Less than a minute later a tall lanky man appeared who, not surprisingly, expertly guided me through the Stihl leaf blower options. He told me that he had the same model I was considering, and liked it a lot.
Like me, he was familiar with the leafy deluge that comes with having many large oak trees on one's property.
And he pointed to a slightly less expensive leaf blower model that he said his neighbor bought, but was unhappy with, because it doesn't handle moist leaves very well, while the model he recommended had enough power to blow both moist and wet leaves.
I told him, "I'll buy it." He then said that for the modest price of a gallon of pre-mixed 50:1 fuel, I'd receive double the warranty period. To which I replied, "Great. Let's do it."
He then pulled the Stihl leaf blower off the shelf, grabbed a fuel can, and took me outside the front door.
There he added fuel, primed the blower, and started it up, giving me a few tips about how to use it in the process. After paying for the blower and driving home with it, I spent a pleasant 20 minutes or so testing it out, finding that it seemed both a bit quieter and more powerful than my current Stihl backpack blower.
Here's a photo of my new leaf blower friend. I spent two hours with it yesterday, finishing up the leaves that have finally stopped falling in our large rural south Salem yard. (In case you hate gas-powered leaf blowers, I've explained why using one is a necessity for us.)
I'd never buy a leaf blower from Amazon, of course.
But I have bought pre-mixed fuel from Amazon. For some reason I hadn't thought that Ace Hardware would carry TruFuel, but now I know that they do. So that's an item I'll be buying locally from now on. I don't want Salem's hardware stores to befall the fate of most of our book stores, driven out of business by Amazon.