The scary thought that has never been far in the back of my mind is that some day we will get to the point that we will have to buy what the companies want us to buy instead of what we really need or want.
I am a big believer in not only small business but manufacturing driven by customer demand. I am not so sure that we are headed in that direction.
The story of my bag of pea gravel is a cautionary tale. If you combine it with a story of gold plated USB cables, you might get the idea that we have something which is cause to worry.
A couple of years ago our local hardware, Wood's Ace Hardware, closed. We had been going there since we moved to Roanoke in 1989. We knew Bill and Monika Woods personally and understood their decision to close.
However, I knew that it would eventually end up making things that we used on a regular basis harder to find. Bill was a master at knowing what people needed in the neighborhood. Short of lumber which he never carried, there were few things which could not be found at Woods.
Today I wanted to fill a varmint hole behind one of our rock walls. The natural choice would be something like pea gravel. Over the years I bought a lot of pea gravel from Wood's. Today I first went to Hammerhead Hardware in Salem, they did not carry it. Then I went to Northwest Hardware on Brambleton in Roanoke. They also did not have pea gravel. Finally I ended up at Lowe's on Route 220 where I found my bag of pea gravel. It was a lot of traveling one bag of pea gravel.
It is strange that as the area has grown, some services have moved to the outside edges of town. When we first moved to Roanoke, there was a Lowe's over at the intersection of Apperson Drive and Keagy Road. It was closed soon after we moved here. Apparently it was too small to suit the company's taste. There was also a Brendle's on Apperson. You could get almost any small appliance or item for the house there. It closed sometime after the Lowe's left.
Now if you want a small appliance or some lumber you have to drive either over near Valleyview or down to 220 south of Tanglewood. As I drove by the still empty former home of Wood's Ace Hardware, I had a hard time remembering how many times I slipped over there on a Saturday afternoon to pick up something that I needed for the home.
So now we have been herded into only being able to shop in certain areas which are usually a distance from our homes. How big a jump is it to the point that we end up having to buy what the manufacturers want to sell us?
Consider my case of the gold USB cables. I bought an inexpensive printer a couple of years ago. When I decided to get a dedicated cable for it, I found that most of the cables being offered were gold plated and priced at around $34.95 which is almost as much as I paid for the printer.
Fortunately there are still sources of cheap USB cables. I recently got one for $9.95 at Walmart.
However, if you think about it much of what we buy today is more designed to meet the needs of a manufacturer than it is our needs.
I am a big fan of coffee made with a vacuum coffee pot. A few years ago one of our died, and we had to get another one. Black and Decker had stopped making them. Apparently the volume was not there. We were lucky to find a Bodum one. A year or two after that one of our Bodum pots quit working. In doing research we found Bodum had also stopped making electric ones. The only ones available had to be used on the stove. It is hard to say why the electric vacuum ones seem to be disappearing, but it might just be another case of manufacturers deciding what they want us to buy.
Another good example is Apple and their computers. For years I fit in the category of a "prosumer," or someone who needed more features than the average consumer. My requirements always took me to a desktop machine at Apple which most of the time I could get for $1595 to $1795. Apple in its wisdom no longer sells standard desktops at that price point. You have to be satisfied with an iMac which means all the nice displays that I use are no longer of use. If I want a standard desktop I have to pay $2,495.
This does not just happen in electronics.
I have done a lot of weed whacking over my years. I quickly found out that there was only one kind that was the right tool for the job. It was one with with a mostly wood handle. As we have gotten more and more foreign goods in our stores, it has become nearly impossible to find the right kind of weed whacker. Most of the ones sold now have a very small wooden handle and a cheap steel rod for the rest of it. You can hardly use it before bending it. It certainly will not last for seasons. One of those will not even last a few hours in the kind clearing that I used to do.
Obviously the answer is competition, but there seems to be little of that at the low end of the scale. While I can buy a terrific digital camera for $250 that has features which cost over a $1,000 only a year ago, it is nearly impossible for me to buy a good $17 weed whacker. Heck I would pay a lot more for a good weed whacker
Perhaps there just are not enough people really using weed whackers to justify someone making good ones.
Maybe we will get to the day when a local shop ends up making small limited runs of quality custom products at the same time the foreign giants turn out millions of fantastic electronic products.
However, I remain a little suspicious. Just think digital TV and check out all those new energy saving appliances that we all desperately need. I just saw a refrigerator in Lowe's for $3,000. I hope I never "need" one of those.
Here is my next bet. The Kroger at Ridgewood Farm across from Lewis Gale Hospital will be closed because it is too small.
How do we get across the concept that keeping neighborhood stores alive is critically important? Just look at the difficulty of getting them to come back to an area like downtown Roanoke.