At Large: Where to shop?

Early in each new year, I spend a week examining the Christmas season just ended for holiday shopping trends. It’s a bit of research I assign myself, not for any high scientific purpose, but because the first week in January is pretty slow news-wise, so why not?

Generalized, the report this year is that business was so-so for retail. It might have been worse, given the national, well, depression. (You can’t accurately call it a recession, because the statistics say otherwise, but whatever it is, it’s depressing.)

On the other hand, one might have expected much worse, given the exhausted real estate market and the widespread decline in the wealth effect. (The wealth effect is a derivative of the last decade, when we imagined we were richer than we were and spent like delusional Italian cruise liner captains. Whee.)

What buoyed Vineyard retail this year seems to have been the weeding out of the retail business population. Fewer competitors, more empty storefronts on Main Street resulted in a boost to the survivors and to those hardy retailers who chose to keep their businesses open until, as an old seafarer I know likes to say, the last dog is hung – that is, January.

Internet shopping attracted some Vineyard shoppers, naturally enough, and in the course of my studies, I found it heartening that Vineyard men, notoriously delinquent shoppers, had raged through the retailers on Christmas Eve, their bloodshot, wind-tortured eyes pleading for advice and especially for wrapping help from shopkeepers. I saw a dozen whom I knew.

Wearing their coveralls, some hammers still dangling from nail aprons, these hardies, helplessly love-struck but resisting with all their might, trudged into the shopping spirit just as the gong was about to sound. They were going to make their gals happy if it was the last thing they did on Christmas Eve, and it was.

There has been talk over the years of Christmas shopping patterns changing. In particular, there is the growth of e-commerce, which its enthusiasts promised would put a profound crimp in the Christmas fortunes of small-town retailers. Then there are the bewitching wonders of the off-Island malls, where you can shop in company with thousands out of the rain. What if folks did their Christmas business at the Hyannis Mall or at BJ’s? What if they ordered everything from Amazon?

That’s all happening, and business here is suffering as a result, but successful downtown business communities have never been a priority. Some of you will remember when the Martha’s Vineyard Commission was the Dukes County Planning and Economic Development Commission. Now, the latter expression of forward thinking purpose has been scrapped, and we plan for 50 years of environmental rule making and stasis, and if economic strangulation is in the bargain, so be it. Except in summertime, when the rich folks grace the place and let treasure cascade from their ample purses.

What will these changes do to the Island economy? We fret. But, it’s not that the global economic sail trimming will blow the Vineyard economy to smithereens. Instead, it will contract, as it has, and become more cramped, less flavorful, more 1970s than 1990s.

But, the after-action report from shopping’s front lines finds that the guys were following traditional herd patterns of behavior and spending their gift-buying allowances in Island shops, where, doubtless, wives and girlfriends had left instructions with their girlfriends who own or work in downtown shops about what would make a swell Christmas gift. In other words, the economy, maybe a little up, maybe a little down, found most folks doing their traditional part in the holiday buying rituals. And off-Islanders, who have been excessively mall-ed for years, traveled here to Christmas shop and spend the holidays at their summer palaces.

The volume, though, is down, and the ability of retailers to pay their bills, as margins and top lines shrink and costs rise, becomes harder.

Some of the more regressive among us may take pleasure in imagining that the Internet and all the brilliant 20-somethings, who know almost everything about everything, and especially shopping, haven’t yet figured out how to suck up every blessed holiday gift buying dollar with a web site and a credit card cyber-siphon.

Personally, my research shows that after a slow start and a sort of early 1980s upswing, I find my shopping world is contracting. Reports on my earliest shopping habits, circa 1969, show that I did very little shopping at all. I made Christmas presents in the woodshop: unique jewelry boxes out of two by threes and plywood; dining tables with mismatched legs; bed frames which needed cinderblock supports.

In those halcyon days, I’d stop at Lillian’s on Main Street – later Bramhall and Dunn, and in the future, what? – for some foundation garments. Or I’d shop Ben Coggins’s Ben Franklin Store (now the Green Room), or Hancock’s Hardware (now the Boch maybe one day something).

In the 1970s, because I was working there, I would sometimes shop in Edgartown. Maybe Fligor’s, or Hall’s, once Lilly Pulitzer.

In the 1980s, the booming economy had me in a tizzy. I shopped Edgartown, I shopped Oak Bluffs; in the early 1990s, we did Nantucket. Nowhere was off limits. I was a lumbering shop-a-neesta.

But no more. I’ve apparently come to my senses. It’s not a cyber-question for me. It’s become a question of whether I will leave Vineyard Haven at all. This season, a trip to Leslie’s, a little bit of Shirley’s in my life, a stop at Bunch of Grapes, and my Santa sack was full.

So, in conclusion, I report that I’m secure in my contrarian regression, and I find that, for once, things may be trending in my direction.