‘The kind of place that’s not there anymore. Except here.’

Published: 4/22/2019 9:02:44 AM

Back when I first came to Ashfield and Elmer’s Store was still just a piece of glitter in my entrepreneurial eye, I put a survey in the Ashfield News asking people what they thought Elmer’s in its new 2005 incarnation should be. While my heart was in the locally industrious place, one word on the survey nearly sent me to small-town purgatory.

Among the choices I had listed was “a shop for gourmet groceries.”

Sally Straus was the octogenarian editor of the paper at that time, a woman of strong opinions and stern eyebrows. I wrote up my survey, sent it to Sally and the next day, as I shopped at the Ashfield Farmers’ Market, Straus stormed across the Town Common, stomping her cane as loudly as she could on the grass.

“You,” she pointed, “are an elitist.”

Now, that is an accusation that will make you search your whole soul right to its pith. I did and found nothing that matched up to her accusation.

“You used the word, “Gourmet,” she thundered. “And only people from Boston and New York will come to town because of you.” She spat out the words as if they were coated in garden slugs.

The crowd gathered and I knew not what to say.

She did. “Elmer’s should be for the locals. Not for outsiders.”

“I want it to be for locals,” I said. “Local, community business is my whole raison d’Elmer’s.”

“Then take that word out,” she ordered and stomped away.

I hurried home, changed the word to “locally sourced” and sent it back in. Straus grunted approval and published the document.

Responding to the overwhelming wishes of those surveyed, I opened a locally sourced grocery and breakfast restaurant, later expanding it to include lunch and dinner. I loved and maintained Elmer’s for 13 years before finally wearing out and selling it to new people with new energy, last July.

But in those 13 years, here’s what I found.

At least once a week all summer long, someone from one of those elitist, far-away cities would come in and say to me, “I had no idea places like this existed anymore!” Our tagline became, “The kind of place that’s not there anymore. Except here.”

We were a treasure to those city people whose lives were filled with national chain businesses. We were a place where people talked to each other across the table. Where everyone knew everyone else. Where people remembered them from year to year. Those outsiders put us on their maps to visit every year, and they became part of our extended and necessary family. Summers were wonderful. From the very day kids were sprung from school until the day they were dragged back to class, Elmer’s was full, happy and vibrant. But from the first day of school, all the way through the 280 days of fall and winter (with time off for excitement on holidays,) when the only customers in town were local ones, we worked hard, hard, hard to stay alive.

These are the kinds of tales one can’t tell while one owns the local business; they sound self-serving and intentionally guilt-inducing. But now that I’m on the other side of the counter, now that I’m a regular old patron myself, I tell these stories often and, putting my literal money where my mouth is, I stay off-line and shop as locally as I possibly can.

My first choice in hardware stores? Ashfield Hardware, run by two women and a cat. If Ashfield Hardware doesn’t have it, I go to Aubuchon’s. After I go through every local hardware store I can find, I end up at Home Depot. This doesn’t make me think I’m a good person, it rewards me tremendously to shop among my people. (Note: Selling Elmer’s didn’t float me into time-rich retirement; I’m as busy as I ever was, only in other endeavors.) But local shopping, as a long-term investment in the community I love is worth the time spent.

My first-choice Shelburne Falls bookstore is also owned by a cat, though that just happens to be a coincidence.

Local businesses keep us sane. Researchable statistics show that rates of depression, loneliness and suicide climb as people recede deeper and deeper into isolated and on-line living. Stopping in at the local grocery store where the owners know you, your mama and your interests in life connects us with our tribes. We need our tribes to know that we matter in this world. I didn’t make that up – real, live scientists and researchers did. I’m just reporting the news.

Local businesses hire our children. Local shopkeepers keep stock of what we want and need in our daily lives. They get involved in local plans, ideas and excitement. They pay lots and lots (and lots) of money in taxes to enable town growth. They love and appreciate us in a way that Amazon never, ever, ever will.

We are lucky to have what we have out here. The city-folk know that. Let’s reward ourselves with the good life, with businesses we love, because we still can.

Nan Parati lives and works in Ashfield, where she found home and community following Hurricane Katrina. She can be reached at NanParati@aol.com

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