EDITOR'S NOTE: First of a two-part series about locally owned businesses.
The growing popularity of big box stores has turned Christmas shopping into something like a visit to the Social Security office -- a painful, dehumanizing journey.
So, recently, I talked to some merchants on Broadway in Atwater to see if I could find stores that would enrich, rather than drain, my spirit.
On Broadway, the buildings are old and darker than the garishly-lit 42,000 square-foot stores on the outskirts of town. They do not have Muzak. Shoppers must parallel park on the street, and the curbs are so high they could scrape the bottom of their doors if they're not careful. Every store on Broadway is closed on Sunday. None were open on Thanksgiving. This is exactly my kind of shopping experience.
My Sister's Attic at 1260 Broadway is a gift, curiosity, collector's store unlike any other.
It is owned by Joyce Pedersen, but she has recently had knee- replacement surgery, so her daughter-in-law Shannon is taking over temporarily. Shannon's children played behind the counter as I asked about her top-selling items. She couldn't really choose.
"The porcelain dolls," she said. "And the western stuff." She laughed, "Half this town must be done in western décor."
There are the sports memorabilia, including the NFL toaster, which costs $42 and produces toast branded with a team's logo.
"One guy came in here with his wife and saw all the dolls and jewelry and said 'No, I'm not staying here,' and then he saw all the team stuff and couldn't stop looking.
"We've got the Marilyn Monroe and Elvis aisle," she said. "And the Legacy candles. They're our most popular items, I think. They're only $7.99, cheaper than you can get online." She offered a candle for me to smell.
Shannon credits Granny's Pantry, a family-owned restaurant across the street, as the engine driving downtown business. "I see people coming out of there and then heading over here," she said.
She paused when I asked her why downtowns are dying in America. "I think people are just used to convenience. And they want to shop at the cheapest place, not look around."
But then she told me that many of her customers have been coming to the store for years. "They don't want to pay mall prices," she said.
Competitive pricing was mentioned again at Shoes Plus, directly opposite Joyce's store, where Vans are on sale for $39.
"But even our regular price is cheaper than at the malls," said Alicia, who has been working at Shoes Plus for four years. "We have Converse, Nikes, Adidas -- all brand names. But don't mention the purses in your article," she added, indicating two black purses hanging on a rack. "We don't really get them very often."
Next door, at Fabulous Fashions, I met Lynn, who has worked at the store since it opened almost three years ago. She pointed out blazers for work and dresses for church.
"We try to get a little of all styles," she said. "And we have an expanded plus-size section."
I saw some NBA hats in a glass case. "Those are snap backs." She pulled out a Miami Heat cap. "$29. Cheaper than chain stores."
Behind the case was a Sun-Star article featuring a picture of two teen girls, star athletes at Buhach Colony High School. "Those are the owner's daughters," Lynn told me.
When our conversation turned to business, Lynn admitted that sales were a bit slow. "You know, they move shopping centers to the outside of town and then wonder what happened to downtown. And, maybe, people just aren't aware of what's here."
I sometimes fear that we have participated in a grim bargain, one in which we have opted for the bland over the colorful, where we have sold our souls for convenience and cheaper prices.
But I prefer a gift store where a daughter-in-law helps out and her children play behind the counter, a shoe store where some of the merchandise is unpredictable and a clothing store where pictures of the owner's daughters are on the wall behind the counter. I want quirky and interesting.
I want shopping to be festive, just as it should be during the month of December.