In the Hudson Valley, where I live, I hear the mantra "shop local" so often that it has begun to seem like a religion.
I am always suspicious of anything that is pushed too hard, but in theory, it seems like a good idea. A vibrant Main Street helps make the local economy more resilient and boosts real estate prices. Plus, buying locally means less shipping and a smaller carbon footprint.
What could be bad about that?
I gave it a whirl in my little town. First stop: a cranky baker who seemed one stale-muffin complaint away from imploding. Next: a gourmet food shop with Manhattan prices and rude service. The owner of a café asked my friends and me to stop talking while the musician played. A pet shop sold me a dog jacket with a snap that made a hole in the jacket and in my dog.
These places also keep weird hours. If you want a gluten-free muffin on Tuesdays or Wednesdays, you're out of luck because the baker is closed. Many other local businesses also take a day or two off during the week -- or close at 5 p.m. I would swear the stores at one shopping plaza never open at all.
In short, I discovered that shopping at small, independent stores is neither convenient nor efficient. Because of their limited selection and hours, I had to visit more stores. That meant more driving -- bad for the environment and my wallet. And I got frustrated by their service and quirkiness.
Proponents of shopping locally stress that local stores serve as community touchstones where people gather for conversation and information. "If you walk into a store and the owner knows your name, that's fabulous," said Ajax Greene, co-founder of ReThink Local, a nonprofit group of locally owned Hudson Valley businesses.
Maybe I am an unfriendly person, but I don't care if the owner knows my name. In fact, I would almost prefer the owner did not so that if I need to complain about anything, I can do it under the cloak of anonymity.
Shopping from online retailers is so much easier. I get a broad selection, competitive prices and clearly stated refund policies -- all right at my fingertips from my favorite shopping center, my home.
The truest test of customer-friendliness comes when you try to return something. Amazon will ship a replacement for defective merchandise without requiring that the original item be returned. The local pet-store owner balked at giving me a refund even when I showed her the scar on my dog's leg.
So, why bother with local shopping? The answer from Susan Witt of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics in Great Barrington, Mass., could be summed up as follows: Don't be so selfish.
According to Witt, people like me need to sacrifice for the greater good, and soon we will discover that we're not actually sacrificing at all. "Quality of life is determined by the number of stories you know about the items in your home," Witt said. "You either have a table, or you have a table whose history you know. You know the woods where the cherry tree was cut, you know the carpenter who made it, you know her children. You realize your purchase helped those children thrive. There's an interconnectedness that fills not just the physical need, but the spiritual need."
This holiday season, I struck a compromise between the physical and the spiritual. I bought lots of gifts at a craft shop that has a great selection of beautiful goods at reasonable prices - and is open daily till 7 p.m. I may not know the owner's children, but I felt good about supporting a local shop that in turn supports local artisans.
Of course, the real test will come if I try to return something.