Saturday was the day I had reluctantly agreed to go Christmas shopping with my wife. I love my wife, but I don't like shopping. I don't mind making a list of things and going to the store to buy them, but taking me "shopping" is just about the easiest way possible to turn me into a grumpy old man. Add Christmas crowds, Christmas hype, Christmas muzak, and "Made in China" stamped on everything, and I make Scrooge look like Mr. Rogers.
We started at the Toys 'R Us in Madison to pick up two very specific wish-list requests from my nephews. It was Saturday morning, a week before Christmas, and I was shocked when we got there to see that the parking lot was only about a quarter full. I looked over at the big mall across the parking lot. Same thing.
Inside the store, we saw only a few other shoppers. It was no problem getting an employee to point us to the right aisle. Another employee explained to us the different variations of a certain toy and which one he thought would be best for my nephew.
No line at the checkout.
"That was weird," I thought. Maybe everybody shopped on Black Friday, or ordered everything from Amazon months ago. Or maybe Madison being so heavy with public employees, people aren't spending as much after having their pay-checks cut with no guarantee they won't be cut again.
We went to the mall next to look for some clothes. We bought a couple of items at Penney's, which was practically giving the stuff away. No line at the cashier. Then, while my wife browsed the kids' department for some knit hats for the nephews, I wandered around in housewares. I was hoping to find a nice travel mug that wasn't made in China to give to my brother. No luck.
When my wife found me, she had the hats. "Made in China," she said, pointing to the hats. I'd already broken my self-imposed "buy American or at least buy local" pledge at Toys 'R Us, so I was not thrilled about the hats.
"I'm not buying those," I mumbled. I repeated it when my wife asked me what I had said. I repeated it louder, trying to make sure she knew my frustration wasn't directed at her. She understood and we didn't buy them.
"There's a family that has a kiosk in the mall that sells stuff like this," she said. "I think they're from Peru or Mexico originally, but they're a local family. I've bought things from them before."
My wife speaks fluent Spanish, so she was able to explain to the man at the kiosk exactly what we were looking for, a knit cap with a brim. He had a lot of nice things, some handmade, almost everything from South America, but he didn't have the hats we wanted.
As we walked back through the Penney's to leave the mall, we looked at a big bin of plastic junk near the doorway. The bin was was labeled "Stocking Stuffers" and the items were insultingly cheap. I don't mean inexpensive, just cheap. I thought of the card I might write to go with it if I had the guts to give one of these stocking stuffers. "Here's a gift. I think so little of you that I am giving you something made by a wage slave in China that will fall apart the first time you use it. Merry Christmas to you and your landfill!"
Did I mention that Christmas shopping makes me grumpy?
We left the mall and went to the craft store, where my mood began to improve. My wife needed to pick up some yarn to finish a scarf she was knitting for her mother. It obviously had to be the same color and brand as the rest of the scarf. They had it. And guess what? We still make yarn here in the United States.
Next was the one big-ticket item on our list. My teenage daughter is really getting into photography and she told us about a camera she would like. We decided to go to a local camera store and not a chain or big box. The salesman was very knowledgeable. He's a professional photographer when he's not working at the store. My wife had made a point of mentioning that we made the effort to find them. "We appreciate that," he said, and it was obvious he meant it.
Next stop: The St. Vincent De Paul thrift store to look for a used, Christmas-themed tablecloth for ourselves. No luck, but I love looking at all the stuff in the thrift store, especially the every day items. "Look at this stuff!" I think. "Made 40 or 50 years ago and it's still functional. The only reason it's here is because its previous owner died."
We had given up on the hats for the nephews, but they had also listed books on their wish lists. Not specific titles, but interests. (Maybe my sister-in-law put that on their wish lists, but regardless, we were near the "Half Price Books" used book store.) We found a couple of great books there that we know they will love, and I was starting to have fun. Christmas shopping. Me!
We thought we were done, but my wife checked her phone for messages and found that she had received a call that the sewing machine she'd taken in for repairs a few weeks ago was ready. The sewing and vacuum shop is on the other side of Madison from where we were, but we were already out and about, and I love the idea of getting stuff repaired so I was happy to extend our shopping trip. I had a good conversation with the owner of the shop while my wife paid the bill. Though his repair business is booming due to people doing more of their own sewing (and fixing old machines rather than buying new), he laments the demise of quality workmanship. "It's all investor groups, now. They bought the names - Viking, Pfaff - and they put the labels on the machines, but the machines are all the same and they're made in the same factories."
I lament the fact that now we often can't buy quality merchandise even if we're willing to pay more up front. Nobody makes quality. It's not profitable. My wife's sewing machine is about 18 years old and is a decent machine, worth repairing. She couldn't buy a machine that good today. My mother had her sewing machine for decades. The big stores that sell the modern, flimsy sewing machines don't even do repairs. I assume if your machine breaks, they just try to sell you a new one.
I was glad to give this local shop our money. It was nice to talk to somebody who has seen it first hand - this destruction of our economy by selling off the idea of quality. The 1% don't need sewing machines, therefore a quality sewing machine is not an option for anyone.
The repair shop is near a dollar store. My wife convinced me to go in with her to look for some wrapping paper. She assured me a lot of it is made in the USA. She's a teacher and she buys paper supplies there. Sure enough, a lot of the paper goods are still made in the USA, though much of it is from India.
I notice something at the dollar store that I haven't seen all day at any of the other stores: long lines at the checkouts. My wife points out to me how diverse the shoppers are. White, black, young, old, well dressed, not so well-dressed, families, senior citizens. 99% of everybody now shops at the dollar store. While we wait in line to buy our wrapping paper and some envelopes, the woman ahead of us tells the cashier that her husband lost his job 8 months ago and has been out of work since. The cashier replies that she knows how it feels, because she herself has been working two jobs and still can't pay her bills.
"It really says something when the only long lines are at the dollar store," I chime in. They nod in agreement.
"The owners (of the dollar store) are doing really well this this year," the cashier affirms.
Later, on the way home, I ask my wife "Do these people in charge get it at all? Do they see what's going on here? People unemployed for months, others working two jobs? Do they think they can sustain an economy like this, where nobody makes anything and the only thing we export is genetically modified corn?"
Of course, I know the answer, and my wife has heard me complain before. Of course they don't get it. Sadly, many in the shrinking middle class don't get it, either, until it happens to them. My wife is a teacher. They'll cut her pay again next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. I work at a credit union, where we actually had a good year, so my wife and I are taking a chance and buying a nice camera for our daughter. The growth at the credit union is temporary, though. We grew our business because people were so pissed off at the banks that they moved their money. That's all. These new credit union members aren't making or bringing in new money. People aren't even borrowing money. They aren't buying cars. They aren't buying homes. They're refinancing to lower and lower interest rates, but that can't continue. Rates can only go so low. They're shifting what little money they have, that's all.
As a country, we're busy, but we're not making anything. We aren't creating wealth. We aren't securing anything and we aren't investing in anything real. In Wisconsin, we have a governor and a legislature that have managed to take billions out of our economy by slashing pay of public employees while their policies have contributed to our state's losing private-sector jobs for 5 straight months.
I don't care what they say about a recovery. This is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.