The following is a letter to the editor of the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Massachusetts. As the Gazette, like most newspapers, has a publishing limit on the number of letters per writer per month, and I’m much more eager to see if they’ll publish my letter about First Night Northampton, I’m publishing this letter only on my blog (an exclusive!).
I’m not without sympathy toward Sydne J. Didier’s complaints about the difficulties of being a downtown Northampton shop owner (“A merchant’s reality check,” Dec. 30: http://www.gazettenet.com/2010/12/30/a-merchants-reality-check?CSAuthResp=%3Asession%3ACSUserId|CSGroupId%3Asuccess%3AVPlbGdTr7dn2Gorbd0k6jQ%3D%3D&CSUserId=38792&CSGroupId=5). In fact, I was excited that this year I was able to purchase all of my birthday, Chanukah, Christmas and Solstice gifts in downtown Northampton and Amherst and even in the local thrift shops, without having to set foot in a chain store.
But here’s another reality check: the prices in most downtown Noho (I use the label deliberately here) stores are astronomical. Many of us who live, work, and shop here can’t afford $1000 for a chair, $100 for an adorable baby item, or $10 for a greeting card, or we choose to spend our money on organic farms or peacemaking efforts or homeless shelters. I understand that items handcrafted by people paid a livable wage cost more than ugly plastic junk manufactured in China. But isn’t there a happy medium between some of the outrageously priced boutique chic in downtown Noho and the cheap, sweatshop-produced polyester whatcha-ma-call-its sold by the ton in Hadley?
If people aren’t spending thousands of dollars on luxury items, they probably have good reasons. Merchants may have to get used to a tighter economy and wiser consumers, and sell items that are practical as well as beautiful, priced for those of us who don’t have wealthy parents, trust funds or 6-figure salaries. I’m not suggesting that downtown Northampton should be nothing but hardware and surplus stores, but a reality check may be precisely what’s needed.