I visited the Agway farm store today where I usually buy my cat food, bird seed and outdoor tools and plants and seeds for my garden, as well as restock my displays of greeting cards and gift items.
But today was not the day to seek out Gambit and Tabatha’ latest hiding spot, or visit a cage of stray or feral kittens on their way to being socialized and bound for loving adoptive homes.
The store is closing, has in fact closed, and I went to pack up my stuff and buy what I could from the merchandise that was left.
Agway stores and similar farm supply stores provided farms with specific products that couldn’t be found any other place. As the number of both working and hobby farms has decreased in Allegheny County, the clientele has decreased, and even with picking up home, garden and pet supplies, a small shop can’t compete with the big box stores.
But the big box stores don’t rescue stray kittens and cats, nor do they sell your home-canned pickles and apple butter, nor the eggs produced by the chicks you bought from them last year and raised with help from others who shop there and know about hens and roosters.
And if someone in a big box has to make their quota of sales or work in three unrelated departments they don’t have the time to stand around for 15 minutes and discuss the relative merits of applying organic dormant oil on your apple trees in either October or November, or explain to someone how to set out little flat containers of stale beer around your garden at night to trap slugs instead of spreading toxic slug pellets and risk your dog eating them. In fact, it’s rare you’ll find someone in big boxes who even knows about these things—not unheard of, but very rare. And the time spent to explain something is often frowned upon, from what I hear.
I won’t rail about big boxes, but it’s the communication part that is missing, and that’s what’s always been so important to me in these smaller stores. I have so enjoyed the conversations every time I’ve stopped there through the years, helping people with problems and questions with their cats and pets in general, suggesting books and websites to use for reference, constantly posting information on spay and neuter clinics and rabies clinics which people regularly used and passed on to their friends. And dispensing information and learning new on gardening and landscaping without using toxic chemicals.
Through the years I’ve also purchased seeds and plants and sold my own seedlings and plants at this store, those started from my organic seeds and from cuttings for vegetables, landscaping flowers and houseplants. At the holidays as well, I’d take in my handmade grapevine wreaths decorated with dried goldenrod and asters and garlands and swags of spruce trimmed from my trees, decorated with hand-tied bows, in addition to baskets and other creations inspired by nature’s forms and shapes. These small forms of income have not only been important to me, but have been a traditional form of trade in communities for centuries.
Just as important as “communication” is “community”, and that’s what these small stores have always been, a community of people who share information, needs and income. I will miss not only the steady supply of small income I’ve gained from there—which usually went right back in for my cat food and bird seed and other supplies—I will miss the lives of the people I’ve gotten to know and even sharing my art and merchandise with them. It may seem incongruous, but this store had the best sales of any for my greeting cards in particular. I think, in part, people liked to buy them because they knew me as well as appreciating the designs and sentiments of the cards and the convenience of having them where they regularly shopped.
Gambit and Tabatha have a new home where they’ll be able to safely live indoors and out as they are accustomed. The shop is just about empty.
But a community takes care of its members, and Don, the manager for years, told me to visit “The Barn” just a short distance away, which sells plants, decorative lawn and landscaping materials and gift items and see if they’d be interested in my merchandise. I stopped there on my way back from the Agway and the woman already knew me and Don had already given her my business card.
I have a love-hate relationship with retail. I love to create my artwork and even to create the derivative items from it like cards and notepads and prints, and the best way to get my artwork known is to create and sell these things, but it takes time to drive around and visit shops, introduce myself, deliver the goods and maintain a display. The actual sales from this might break even for expenses and time, but the real benefit is in finding new customers. Finding a shop where I also have other reasons to visit just makes it better.
So this weekend I’ll be setting up my display in the big old unheated barn which is a totally cool space with so many neat things that I have a hard time getting out of there, and it’s managed by the congenial Kathy and an enthusiastic rescued chocolate lab named Irish Malarkey.
And there’s another constant—animals and animal rescue. One door closes and another one opens as our friends share us with their friends. It is not a loss and a gain, but simply a change.
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