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According to recent retail promotional tradition, Christmas shopping season starts the day after Thanksgiving—the notorious Black Friday. But the Saturday before Thanksgiving, Main Street of my hometown of Northampton, Massachusetts, was thronged with holiday shoppers. Why? Bag Day.
Northampton is a boutiquey little college town of less than 29,000. Its few chain stores include Eileen Fisher; you probably can't buy a 10-pack of tube socks on Main Street but you can buy all manner of quirky, colorful, bamboo fabric socks; independent bookstores and coffee shops rule. So its example certainly can't be replicated everywhere. But, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, more than 80 local businesses offer well-publicized discounts. The bag in Bag Day goes out in the local newspaper a few days ahead of time and entitles the holder to 20 percent off of one item in each of the stores listed on the bag. You buy your item, and the store crosses its name off. Many stores, though, offer a discount on your entire purchase, often not just for Saturday but for two or three days. It is a huge draw.
How big a draw? Bags are also available in Thornes, a small shopping center in the middle of downtown, on the morning of Bag Day. In 2010, a local television station reported that:
Bags start being distributed at 8:00 AM on the second floor. They are only giving out 1,000 bags. Jody Doele, the marketing manager at Thornes Marketplace, told 22News "I know we give all the bags out in two to three hours. It's a mob scene. It's one of the busiest, if not the biggest sales day of our whole year."
People who wouldn't ordinarily shop in downtown—people who might stick to the big malls and big box stores—come into town for Bag Day. The crowds on the sidewalks would do many Manhattan neighborhoods justice, and it seems like every other person is carrying one of those bags. The official Christmas shopping season in the area is extended by nearly a week, and it kicks off not at 6 AM Black Friday at Walmart, but the previous Saturday at locally owned stores with names like Broadside Bookshop, Artisan Gallery, and Inspirit Crystals. (Massachusetts doesn't allow most stores to open on Thanksgiving, so that bullet is dodged.)
The big answers to the big problems of a Walmart economy involve policy. Raising the minimum wage. Cracking down on wage theft. Making it easier for workers to organize without fear of retaliation. Making hugely profitable corporations pay a reasonable share of taxes. Cute little boutiques in college towns don't fix any of that. But at the same time, it's worth it for local business to keep fighting, for small towns to think creatively about keeping Main Street vibrant rather than letting all the business bleed out to the strip malls at the edge of town.