Letters from Ely - Saturday errands

by Duane Behrens

Owning an older home (or any home in the Ely area) means frequent trips to the hardware store. Not to mention trips to Voyageur Lumber, Pamida, Ben Franklin, Serena's and so on down the list. That "list" is important for reasons we don't think about until it's too late. <BR><BR>As on most Saturday mornings, I parked my car near a favorite coffee shop. This morning I said hello to Kristen and Samantha and enjoyed brief chats with patrons before starting my rounds. It was around 15 degrees outside, the sun was out and a skiff of new snow had fallen last night. Beautiful! Jacked up by a double-skinny in a short cup, I set off with vigor, purpose and a slight twitch.<BR><BR>The Surplus Store is next to the coffee shop, and I asked young Sarah there to help me choose some new snowshoes. These would be employed that afternoon for my first-ever snowshoe trip, an afternoon of sweating, cursing and planting my face in the snow; also referred to in brochures as "enjoyable outdoor exercise" by the people who make the snowshoes.<BR><BR>Next stop, the feed-and-seed store. Compared to my bumbling bird-watching skills, Debbie is a master of ornithology. She helped me name the juncos and finches who had visited our feeder that week, and she didn't even roll her eyes when I exclaimed I'd seen a "Baltimore oriole." She's good that way.<BR><BR>Over at the hardware store, Chris had come in early to mix a few gallons of "Chocolate Kiss" paint for the stairs and trim at the cabin. (Who makes up these paint names? It looks "brown" to me.) As always, Lil and Joanne had me laughing out loud with their rapid-fire stories of bears and mother-in-laws, helping me forget that my monthly hardware expense often exceeds my house payment. <BR><BR>The lumber yard was next. Roger asked Chico to show me some good cedar stock for a trailer rack. As we went out the door, Roger called out, "Take what you need, load it up, come back and give me a count - I'll write up the ticket when you're all set." Certainly not the Walmart way - a chain of retail outlets that makes a profit by assigning perceived value to cheap "wood-grained" plastic. Voyageur Lumber isn't cheap . . . and they don't sell plastic.<BR><BR>Judy at Pamida showed me the proper salve to heal my calloused hands - something called "Bag Balm." Yes, yes, I was udderly surprised. (Had to say that before you did.) <BR><BR>At the grocery store, Cal-Cal (a hard worker and a friend of mine) carried my groceries to the car with quiet confidence and professionalism. Across the street, Dave had his usual look of friendly amusement and gave the weather forecast as he took my movie return. And at my final stop of the morning, Jayne admitted to the rewards and challenges of coaching cross-country athletes as she placed my dinner wine and a six-pack into a paper sack. Dan updated me on the work he hasn't had time to do at their place, and I made a note to myself to never ever own a liquor store. (Oh sure, you might make some money but your free time will disappear like last night's dream.)<BR><BR>Anyway. Two hours, nine chores and nine stores later, the errands were finished and I was in a good humor that would last until the snowshoes went on. And yes, it's true - I could have purchased most of the above items at a Walmart or Home Depot in Virginia or Grand Rapids - or at any other large "discount profit center" nearby. But the experience is vastly different.<BR><BR>On the outskirts of so many small cities in Minnesota and elsewhere, you'll now find a 30,000 square-foot "profit center" and eight acres of parking where only farmland once existed. After you've found a parking space, you'll join a few dozen other folks walking through a single doorway. (In membership stores, that door is guarded by a "host" who politely asks to see your identification.)<BR><BR>While your image and movements are digitally recorded, you choose the items you need. These mega stores carry everything from Indonesian garden hose to faux whole-wheat bread to Chinese roto-tillers to Sri Lanka shower caps. Appliances that used to be known as "durable goods" now sport a big red tag warning the buyer, "DO NOT RETURN DEFECTIVE ITEM TO STORE!" At the end of each grocery aisle, middle-aged women with worried eyes provide bite-sized samples of processed "food products" as they hawk their assigned wares in a monotone voice. <BR><BR>Eventually you finish your selection and take your place in queue with a dozen other "guests." You speak with no one, you keep your eyes in the distance and your hand ready with your wallet; you're being a "good consumer." A disinterested checker scans your items while an even less-interested "associate" puts each one back in your cart again. <BR><BR>Few words are exchanged but the money always changes hands. And then . . . you're done. No one says "See you soon!" or "Tell Jane hi!" or even "Good bye." You just move away from the cash register toward the exit, making room for the next wallet. At the exit you'll be asked for your sales receipt by yet another guard. In the end, you place your purchases in the back of your vehicle with a small sigh and drive home with a vague sense of regret... regret for the loss of a thing you can't name but which has nevertheless been taken away.<BR><BR>But I know what that missing thing is. If you count and compare a morning of errands in Ely with a long trip to the Home Depot in Grand Rapids or Duluth, you'll see it too. Never adequately defined in the English language, the closest word for it is "community"... a level of commitment and caring for people who have an interest in caring about you. So I don't make that long trip unless I have to, and I don't like Grand Rapids. I like Ely. Because Ely still has "community." Ely still has a soul.<BR><BR>Right. Now, then - who wants to buy a pair of snowshoes? Excellent condition, used only once, first offer over five bucks takes 'em both, and I'll deliver...<BR><BR>