Somehow, don't ask me how, I got sucked into being on the silent auction committee at Lucy's school this year. This is a job involving mostly begging for donations, which in the current economic climate is not exactly a rewarding endeavor. Nonetheless, begging I have gone, asking at stores all over the county and beyond for a little something for the auction. I have asked at coffee shops and malls, yoga studios and department stores, even gas stations and supermarkets.
Now, believe me when I say that I am sympathetic to the position that one should not have to give donations to the public schools, particularly when one does not even have children attending them. Did we not all pay thousands of dollars to the federal government for this very purpose just last month? Do we not sell tens of millions of dollars' worth of lottery tickets to the quantitatively illiterate to ensure, among other things, the financial health of our schools? Why, yes, we did, and we do. So why is this crazy woman with the redheaded boy in tow asking for a free half pound of coffee? I get that. I do. Furthermore, I get that the recession has been very hard on the retail sector, and that altruism may not be at the top of their list of motivators at this particular juncture.
So I expected a lot of rejection at the outset. I figured that most of the mom-and-pops would turn me down, having been hit the hardest. I thought a lot of regional chains would probably say no, too. My best chance, I decided, was the huge national megastores, which were presumably large enough to weather the downturn with their $20 gift cards intact. I figured, for example, that Wal-Mart was doing OK, since in times of economic hardship people previously unwilling to shop there might be forced to cede the high moral ground in order to afford clothing for their kids. Places like Toys R Us, The Gap, Home Depot. They have a little something to spare, right?
Wrong. Here is an approximate transcript of a visit to one of these stores:
Guy Behind the Counter: Hi! Welcome to Toys R Us [Wal-Mart, The Gap, Home Depot, etc.]! Can I help you?
Me: Hi! Yes! I'm with the Old Forge Elementary PTA, and we're having a silent auction in May to raise money to buy technology packages for the classrooms [proffer official letter]. We're hoping you might be able to donate something for the auction. Anything would help - a gift card, an overstocked item, whatever.
GBtC: [eyes glaze over, speaks in a monotone] I'm sorry. I can't handle that here. You'll have to contact our corporate headquarters via our web site, [quotes web address].
Me: Oh. OK. Thanks anyway.
I must have had this conversation 50 times over the last month. I ask for a donation, I get referred to Corporate. OK, so, I'm no stranger to the internet, I went ahead and hit those web sites, which are absurdly difficult to navigate (unlike the main sites for the stores themselves). I filled out web forms, I sent emails. Here, then, is an exact transcript of an exchange with one such corporate headquarters, which shall remain nameless:
I am on the PTA at Old Forge Elementary School in Maryland. We will be having a silent auction next month, and I visited your store in the Valley Mall today to ask if they would be able to donate an item or a gift card for the auction. I spoke with Brittany, the manager there, and she told me that I needed to contact you electronically about this. I am attaching a letter containing more information about the auction and our school. Our taxpayer ID number is available on request. I know many of the students and parents at our school shop at your store - I hope you will be able to help us!
Thank you for your inquiry. [Name of company] is committed to investing in the communities we serve. We believe we should go beyond the basics of ethical business practices and embrace our responsibility to people and to the planet. We believe this brings sustained, collective value to our shareholders, our employees, our customers and society. Social responsibility is fundamental to who we are and how we operate as a company. We invite you to visit our web site at [address] to read about the projects we are currently supporting.
If I can be of any further assistance, please let me know.
My response to their response:
So is that a no?
Yeah, so, it turns out I was right about the quantity of rejection, but dead wrong about its source. It turns out that, in hard times, it's the people in your own community who help you out. The local hardware store. The dog groomer. The dentist's office. The dentist's office! They put together a gift basket for us! The hair salon. The local pizzeria (Domino's said no). The bowling alley. And so on. Here's an approximate transcipt of a visit to one of these stores:
Lady Behind the Counter, who is also the owner: Whaddaya need, honey?
Me: Hi! I'm on the Old Forge PTA, and -
LBtC: Oh, my kids went there years ago! Such a nice little school. Is Mrs. Waterman still there?
Me: Uh, I don't think so. I'm not sure. My daughter is only in first grade -
LBtC: Oh, that's the best age! They love school so much at that age! And how old is your little one [gesturing to Ben]? Isn't his hair something else?
This can go on for some time, until finally:
LBtC: So you need something for the auction. Why don't you go ahead and pick something out? Something under $20. Whatever you think would sell.
Me: Thank you so much!
I feel like a jerk and an idiot for being so off-base on this. Now, of course, it makes sense. These people know who I am. They know the school, they know the kids. Their kids, or grandkids, or neighbors, or all of the above, go there. Unlike Corporate, they actually care whether or not Old Forge kids have what they need. Furthermore, being businesspeople, they hope that being generous to the local school will bring them much-needed business that they might not otherwise get. Corporate knows it already has our business and doesn't need to work for it.
It's not like I needed another reason to hate megastores. I am firmly in the bleeding-heart-liberal camp of people who avoid Wal-Mart like the plague that it is (except, of course, when I'm begging for auction donations). I understand that if I don't support local businesses then they will fail, irrevocably changing the landscape of the small town in which I live. I know I should buy lumber at the local mill instead of Home Depot, books at the independent bookseller instead of Barnes & Noble, toys at the little store downtown instead of Toys R Us. And most of the time I do.
But I won't lie. To me, shopping at Target is one of life's little pleasures, right in there with pedicures and discovering that my husband has folded all the laundry. The convenience of one-click buying at Amazon is as seductive to me as the apple was to Eve. Unfortunately, the consequences are proving to be as dire. I love Quizno's subs. But you know what? I don't want to live in a world where I have to get my subs at Quizno's because they've driven everyone else out of business. And there's the rub.
As I was thinking about these things earlier today, my favorite independent toy store posted a link on their facebook page to the 3/50 Project. I was immediately smitten with their attitude, the upshot of which is that it doesn't have to be all or nothing. You don't have to swear never to one-click preorder the latest Harry Potter from Amazon ever again. You can have a Quizno's veggie sub with no onions and extra guacamole. You can even, dare I say, browse through Target's spring collection. Just, please, promise to support the local guys too. Every month, spend at least $50 among at least 3 local independent businesses. Pick up the potting soil you need at the local store instead of the megastore. Go out for dinner at a non-chain restaurant. Get your morning coffee and bagel somewhere other than Starbucks one day. Done. Get it? So simple! So easy! So effective.
Because, to quote Judy Collins, "God help me if I ever have to shop at Wal-Mart because nothing else is left."