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Paying it forward

SoVaNow.com / November 28, 2012
Leave it to the jokesters at The Onion, the on-line magazine of satire (http://www.theonion.com) to come up with an apt headline for the kickoff of the holiday season: “Nation’s Uncles Enter Last Stage Of Prep For Thursday’s Thanksgiving Debates.”

Er, thankfully, no. At our house peace and quiet reigned over the holiday, for a day or two at least, and my, oh my, did the respite ever come as welcome relief. (No crazy uncles in sight). Having just come off a very contentious election and heading into the busy holiday season, Thanksgiving provided a chance to sit back and relax before the dishes cried out to be done and the normal haywire of life could reassert itself. For that reason alone, it’s a wonderful holiday.

But that’s easy for me to say. What about the folks who had to pull themselves away from the Thanksgiving table, lace up their shoes and go stand behind a cash register for six hours Thanksgiving night into the wee early hours on Friday? Then go back to work before sun-up on Black Friday, a.k.a. now the second-most-anticipated shopping day of the year? Without a doubt, the consumer volcano that has erupted over our national day of thanks is a source of great fun and profit, but the celebration comes at a cost. Was it reaaa-lly necessary to push Black Friday so many hours forward that it morphed into Timecard Thursday for retail employees?

I know, I know: welcome to the modern world. And I get it: everything is more competitive nowadays, and companies (and individuals) have no choice but to adapt to market conditions that force everyone to seemingly work harder to less effect. I have no particular complaint with this new reality, especially with the economy just starting to get back on its feet. Recent hardships have driven home the point that there’s no such thing as a worthless job. (As conditions improve, it’s reasonable to think expectations for the workplace will rise. Let’s hope so, anyway.) Retail employment provides steady income for millions of Americans and it’s a satisfying line of work for many. Yet one can’t help but to wonder: wouldn’t the psychic and economic rewards be just as strong if folks had come off Thanksgiving with a full day’s rest under their belts?

One wonders if the same doesn’t hold equally true for the big retailers who nevertheless are encroaching on time once held to be sacrosanct. Effective marketing is all about creating anticipation and excitement, and the doorbuster mentality stirred up by America’s marketing geniuses is without peer. Yet I guess I’m old enough to remember when the excitement now reserved for 8 p.m. Thanksgiving night specials at Walmart was equaled by the anticipation of Black Friday sales on the day after Thanksgiving. Honestly, what has changed except for bumping the time frame forward by 10 hours?

Perhaps The Onion headline inadvertently nailed it: people are itching to go out shopping Thanksgiving night because they don’t want to listen to Uncle Freddie blather on endlessly about politics or the Redskins or the repairs he’s done to his car. Maybe a Thursday night shopping foray is simply more appealing than waking up the next morning at 4:30 to stand in line for Black Friday blowout deals. (I can certainly understand that feeling. Pre-dawn existence belongs in bed unless you find yourself sharing a strange affinity for zombies.) Any or all of these points might explain why people would want to venture out on Thanksgiving night, and why retailers would offer cut-rate pricing to attract the mobs, but none of it addresses the question of why we can’t have our fun (and profit) without trampling over the prerogatives of family and the human need (whether we heed it or not) for a little rest, peace and quiet.

I don’t have any prescriptions for this problem. As a matter of fact, if it weren’t for the needless strain and annoyance it causes for ordinary workers, I’m not sure if the problem of out-of-control Thanksgiving consumerist culture would be worth giving a second thought. After all, we’ve gone how long now — 40 years? 50 years? — in the thrall of NFL Thanksgiving matchups without paying much attention to the head injuries sustained by the working stiffs on the field during our national day of rest and contemplation. Often in discussions such as these, moralism takes over and reason takes a vacation: no, rushing out on Thanksgiving Night to snap up a $10 pair of dress shoes doesn’t make one an awful person, no more than the store clerk responsible for pulling boxes off the shelf has been sentenced to the Gulag, but yes, the world would be a better place if everyone could agree to restrain their animal spirits — shopper and shopkeeper alike — for a decent length of time, say, enough for 18-hour retail timeout.

Here’s one suggestion: why not consider the psychic and real-world rewards of buying that pair of shoes from the merchant who owns the shop down the street from your home? Having written plenty of times in this space about the virtues of locally-focused agriculture and small-scale economic development, I have no compunction whatsoever in plugging a sister interest — our local merchants who, God love ‘em, have no more notion of opening their shops on Thanksgiving Night than I would have in disturbing their family time over the same period. We only rush down to big-box retail stores to wile away our holiday hours because it’s a very impersonal act — someone’s going to walk away with that half-off TV screen, after all — and such intrusiveness would be unthinkable if the consequences of our actions landed on someone we knew. Yet that’s exactly the point: there’s less to life when actions are devoid of impact. Dollars spent outside the community rarely come back in equal measure, the personal touch is non-existent, and good luck getting that new computer fixed by a dot.com retailer if something ever goes wrong with it. I’m actually fairly optimistic that the shop-local message is gaining currency, in keeping with new modes of thinking about everything from where we get our food to how we build sustainable communities. Downtown commerce is a huge part of the equation and good work is being done by millions of small business owners around the country, including more than a few here at home.

So, enjoy that new home entertainment system; and consider how much more fun you might derive from your purchase if you had a local furniture or home décor store owner drop by the house and suggest some ideas for sprucing up the bedroom or den. After five years of economic struggles in this country, it would be nice to think we might have some capacity to think about spending money on an occasional luxury, and yes, we aren’t there yet — by no means. But we’ll get there a lot faster if available dollars circulate closer to home. Besides, there’s nothing that says that shopping on Thanksgiving Night is destined to become the new normal. What’s next, Christmas Day?







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