Honey! Look at this quaint, closed store!

Alexandria Storefront XMas trees

After dinner with Mary a few weeks ago, I walked back down King Street to my car. I saw the little glass trees depicted above, and remembered that nearly two years ago I photographed them.

I observed a bunch of groups of people window shopping. I got to thinking about it, and wondered: with all of this foot traffic, why are these stores closed for the night? Of course, businesses often know best when they get customers, and how best to set their hours. If they don’t, they typically fail.

King Street is often referred to as “quaint” and historic, but if you take a close look at our shops, you’ll see some hegemony that you wouldn’t expect. Two wig shops, two Moroccan rug shops, multiple  hotels, multiple Irish bars, banks, convenience stores, coffee shops. With some variation, they all sell the same products.

Wig shops sell wigs, rug shops sell rugs, hotels rent rooms, and Irish bars all have Guinness. You get the point.

Some are locally owned chains, like the Pines of Florence and Hard Times Cafe. Others are part of national chains, like Walgreens, CVS, Hilton & Hampton Inn. But we also have gems like Ernie’s Crab House and Pat Troy’s that aren’t part of any chain and are locally owned. We have local banks like Burke & Herbert, the Senate Credit Union, and chains like BB&T. There is a lot of business diversity in Old Town and on King Street, but, in a broad sense, they all offer the same services, and have to compete on price. More on this later.

I observed a married couple looking at rugs, and the husband quipped sarcastically “I’m sure that these stores get their rugs from the same factory in India.” And I’m sure he was probably correct about that.

All of these stores need components or goods to sell, whether they sell things or provide food and service. Ernie’s, Pat Troy’s, The Pines, and Hard Times all sell Budweiser, which is made throughout the U.S. and abroad by Belgian-based Anheuser-Busch/InBev.

Murphy’s, Pat Troy’s, and O’Connell’s all sell Guinness, made by Diageo throughout the world.

BB&T and Burke & Herbert sell banking products, one local, the other a regional chain.

Some stores might sell unique products, like Shiner Bock, a Texas beer. You can get that at Austin Grill or Hard Times. Others might sell wigs or rugs, but they all come from specific producers that aren’t here in Alexandria.

I remember when we went to Morocco, a local rug salesman told us some tall tale about young women making these rugs for years. Of course, he was lying, selling us some quaint notion of “buy local Morocco.” A feel-good story, complete with a loom in the lobby to encourage us to buy his rugs. My parents and the Moriartys bought rugs, because they were nice, even though he was a liar. They took Polaroid pictures with us, and mailed us our rugs. Only the Moriartys were shipped the wrong rug, and the rug salesman refused to accept a return at the local port until a few phone calls to the government were made.

Which brings me to another story. Mary and I helped drop off Christmas food to people in need in Alexandria with St. Mary’s chapter of St. Vincent De-Paul, and afterwards, we stopped at the local open air market next to city hall. Local farmers and others were there selling goods.

Now, the farmers aren’t likely buying eggs and re-selling them, but they were expensive eggs. Those eggs need to compete with the mass-produced eggs I can get at Giant, Shoppers, Wal-Mart, and even Whole-Foods. Unlike the lying rug salesman, they were indeed selling eggs with a story of buy local. I’ve had a lot of eggs in my life, and I must tell you that I cannot tell the difference between store-bought eggs and locally produced eggs. What I can tell the difference between is fake eggs and real eggs. That’s a no-brainer. But some people can tell the difference, and prefer “local” “organic” eggs. And that’s fine.

Other people sold coffee, which, as we talked about earlier, cannot be produced in the United States (except Hawaii). Others were selling fake Uggs made in Asia. So much for buying local, I thought.

One lady was selling custom made Alexandria calendars — for $35. I kindly told her that, while they were nice calendars, I didn’t carry cash and wasn’t buying anything. She persisted, “there’s an ATM at CVS.” I was trying to be nice, instead of saying “for $35, that calendar better tell me the weather, the exact time, and do a bunch of other things.” Instead of being mean, I told her I’d consider it.

I could make my own calendar on snapfish for less than $20. I’m a photographer, but I’m also a price hawk — $35? St. Dominic’s, St. Mary’s, and non-profits like Young America’s Foundation all give me calendars for free. Some people, tourists probably, might be willing to shell out what would amount to be 2 hour’s pay for many, on a calendar. Not me.

At the end of the day, regardless of who owns a store, whether or not it is part of a chain, or if gets its products locally, regionally, in-country, or internationally — there are two major truths to consider.

  1. All of these stores employ locals.
  2. All compete on price.

And that’s why I think it’s a flaw to buy any good or service because it’s perceived to be, or actually made, locally.

Want a savings account in Alexandria? BB&T competes with Burke & Herbert on rates. Do you really want to take a lower rate because Burke & Herbert is local? Now, they might have higher rates, I don’t know. Both BB&T and Burke & Herbert employ your neighbors.

Want some chili and Shiner Bock? Austin Grill and Hard Times offer both, with some distinct differences, and you may prefer one to the other, dependent or independent of price. It’s your choice.

Same goes with eggs. Giant of Old town sells them as does the local farmer at city hall. And calendars. Guinness. Budweiser.

In the end, I think the most important thing to preserve is consumer sovereignty. People should be allowed to buy what they want, from who they want, free of government interference — like tariffs, subsidies, and special tax treatment.

But, if you want to pay more for a good because it’s produced locally, and a non-locally produced substitute good is cheaper, you’re free to do that. I just think it’s silly to make yourself poorer doing so. (And I acknowledge that not all similar goods are substitute goods.)

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