Editorial: Shopping Locally During the Holidays

By Becky O’Malley
Friday November 24, 2006

Today (the day after Thanksgiving) is widely believed to be the biggest shopping day of the year in the United States. Actually, according to the invaluable and entertaining Wikipedia, the days before and after Christmas are days when more retail dollars change hands, but Black Friday, as it’s called, wins out in terms of bodies on the streets and in the malls, though some of them are just shopping, not buying. One folk explanation for the name is that retailers finally make it into the black on that day after almost a year of red ink.  

Actions generate re-actions, so P.C. wannabes, nostalgic for the counter-culture, have been trying to re-brand Black Friday as “buy nothing day.” The implication is that all commerce is inherently bad, and a lot of sanctimonious Berkeleyans with pursed lips would agree. Having a good number of Puritans in my gene pool, I was almost persuaded of that theory for a while. What changed my mind was meeting a distant German relative in Hamburg. He explained proudly (or defensively) that his family, like many in that northern port city, were not the kind of Germans who’d started the big wars of the 20th century. “War’s bad for trade,” he said, so merchants like him have always opposed war. Makes sense.  

This is not an endorsement of unbridled global capitalism, which has done a lot to damage the reputation of business. Or of the kinds of mega-businesses which seem to have taken over the Chambers of Commerce in Berkeley, Oakland and Richmond, and which tried in the last election to take over the governments in those cities. Richmonders in particular seem to have said an emphatic no to the Chamber’s political pushiness, with Green candidate Gayle McLaughlin beating off the thousands of dollars spent by the Chamber’s “RichPAC” to defeat her. 

We’ve gotten suggestions from readers that people who don’t approve of the actions of the Chamber PAC should stop shopping in Berkeley or Oakland or Richmond. That’s a very poor idea, particularly since the vast majority of local retailers don’t belong to the Chambers. When we shop close to home, sales taxes come back to benefit local government, so it’s a good investment.  

Other anti-shoppers decry what they perceive as an excessive emphasis on consumption. But “re-use” is one of the three corners of the environmental triangle, and there are many retailers in the urban East Bay who make meeting this goal easier. Urban Ore, at the corner of Ashby and Seventh Street in Berkeley, is an awesome emporium covering many square feet of all things reusable around the house, from bathtubs to books. Berkeley’s used books stores are world-famous, on Telegraph and elsewhere. The area around the Ashby Bart station is home to many antique and second-hand merchants, and the weekend flea market in the BART parking lot is delightful. Used clothing can be found at lots of stores, from basic to fancy. Men in particular swear by Out of the Closet on University, which benefits HIV/AIDS victims. There are specialty used clothing stores for all kinds of people: stout ladies, kids, punks.  

Another frequently heard complaint is that many new items are now manufactured in other countries under dubious working conditions. The best way to enjoy the pleasures of international shopping without supporting sweatshops is to patronize the many local stores which offer now fair-trade merchandise. Global Exchange, on the corner of College and Russell in the Elmwood, is the grandmother of fair-trade retail. Everything in their stock has a carefully vetted political pedigree—tags tell inspiring stories about worker-run collectives in India and independent artists in Mexico.  

And of course the most successful small industry in the urban East Bay, starting in Berkeley and spreading out, has been the food business. The winter solstice is a traditional time for consumption of luxurious caloric treats, and our bakeries are ready and willing to help in that effort. Crixa Cakes, conveniently located across the street from the Berkeley Bowl, sells pastries which are easily as good as anything one might find in Budapest or Vienna (and here we must acknowledge that they are an anchor Planet advertiser, but we’d patronize them even if they weren’t). Our bread bakers are world-renowned.  

Farmers’ markets are open somewhere in the urban East Bay every day except Monday, and they offer all kinds of locally produced goodies for gifting. Hand-made crafts are another lively local industry you can support with your shopping dollars—they can be found at the farmers’ markets, on Telegraph in Berkeley, and elsewhere.  

The very best thing about shopping locally is that you can avoid the traffic you’d find at the malls on Black Friday. In our East Bay cities, these businesses or others like them are usually located within easy walking distance of home. We’d like to get suggestions from our readers about other local businesses that they recommend—if we get enough, we’ll do a special feature on them in December.