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Greene: Simple Notions

08/11/11 7:55AM By Stephanie Greene
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(HOST) As commerce practices adapt to satisfy new demands, commentator Stephanie Greene has been reflecting on some of the ways we've met our basic needs in the past.

(GREEN)  I need to replace a closure on a pair of pants. This requires a hook and eye, needle and thread. This repair takes under five minutes - it's a simple task.

Procuring such basic supplies, however, is not easy at all. In fact, it is easier, by far, to buy a car in southern Vermont than it is to get hold of these fasteners.

How could there be no local store that sold such a small but strategic item?
 
The way this used to work was you would go to any well appointed five and dime, general or even hardware store to an area selling "notions" and buy the sewing implements you needed. If your project was more involved - for dressmaking, say - you'd go to a cloth and ribbon counter, many of which were in local department stores. For a larger selection of cloth, you could go to a mill end or specialty store.

Needless to say, most of those stores are gone, and even Walmart is scaling back its sewing section.

In the 19th century, there were peddlers. Welcomed onto lonely farms, they brought small necessities in their packs like knives, needles, razors, thread and combs, as well as news and gossip. The peddlers who traveled on foot were mostly young, strong and enterprising, trekking the backwoods while building up their inventory to include shoes, inexpensive jewelry, clocks and yard goods. The occasional scoundrel, who sold re-dried tea or cigars made from oak leaves, tainted the profession, but by and large, it all worked well.

Hard work and careful managing would, with luck, bring in enough capital to open a store. Many of the great retail magnates started out as peddlers: Richard Sears of Sears Roebuck catalogues, and George Hartford of A&P markets, and Alfred Fuller, who started the Fuller Brush Company.

Salesmen were joined on the road by traveling federal justices, itinerant preachers, tinsmiths, tailors and portrait painters, as well as blacksmiths and repairmen. What a parade it must have been! Far from an alarming event to have a stranger at your door, they were usually invited in for a mug of cider and a bit of news before the business began.

Now we have the Shopping channel and the Internet; but what we've gained in reach and variety of goods we've lost in human contact.
 
But peddlers may make a comeback, perhaps with a fancier name. As more people work at home and gas prices continue to rise, the fuel efficiency of well-planned delivery routes becomes more compelling. Home deliveries of groceries are already a suburban staple, with errand-running services on the rise. Palo Alto-based futurist Jamais Cascio, founder of Open the Future, even envisions local deliveries by robots, though I doubt he's experienced mud season.

As I keep my eye peeled for a package of hooks and eyes, I'll have to make do with UPS deliveries. Unfortunately you can't yet go into the truck and choose just what you'd like. Wouldn't that be fun?
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