I bought an iron the other day. I like to sew and make clothes, and the old iron I was using finally kicked the bucket.
The first place I thought to go for a new one was a gigantic store like Carrefour or MediaWorld, which sell everything. But I really didn’t want to patronize them if it wasn’t necessary. One thing that’s great about Torino is that it’s chock-full of small independent stores, and my neighborhood is full of them.
When I was riding my bike back from an errand that morning, I saw a small store selling small appliances (piccoli elettrodomestici) right on my street.
I went there and asked about the irons, telling the woman working in the store that I was looking for an iron that produced a lot of steam for pressing dry cotton fabric. She helped me understand the differences between the steam output in grams of the various models.
After I made a decision, she took the iron to the counter and opened the box and took the iron out. She explained all of the features to me, made sure the paperwork was in the box, and even plugged the iron into the wall outlet to make sure it worked!
I probably would not have gotten that kind of attention at a big box store, where you are lucky when you can chase down an employee. It was a nice experience and I was glad to give my money to her rather than to one of the big boxes.
Earlier that morning, I went into the shoe store on my street since my sandals are falling apart and I don’t know if they will make it through another summer.
I saw a pair I really liked in the window so I went in and tried them on, but the largest size they sold was too small. Many Italian shoe stores carry shoes up to size 40 (about a 9 or a 9 1/2 US size) but that doesn’t help me.
I had to wait for the person at the register to finish a transaction with a customer, and then he came over to help me. I asked to try on the sandal and he took it out of the box and unbuckled it. When I said it was too small, he said, “piccolino?“, and I thought it was funny how he added the diminutive -ino to the word “small” in reference to the shoe. (I had the same reaction in my sewing class when my teacher showed me how to hold the skirt I was making in order to sew the zipper on, and she said to place my manino on the back of the skirt [manino = mano (hand) + ino (small, cute, etc.]). It’s just something Italians say.
When I left the store, I decided I liked the personal attention salespeople give you in small stores like this. They usually know their products and can help you find something if you’re unsure of what to choose. For example, the woman told me about the steam output of the irons, and I know it’s not rocket science but I had no idea about that before. Another time I bought boots (go in January when everything is 50% off), which I wouldn’t have tried on because I didn’t see my size, but the saleslady knew they ran large and so I found a great pair and could stop shopping.
Since the customers are not handling the merchandise themselves and putting it back however they feel like it, the store is neater. The experience is also quicker and more precise. For example, there are a lot of small hardware stores in the city; I just walk up to the counter and ask for what I want and they produce it. I don’t have to wander around huge aisles looking for something specific.
I was a little afraid to shop in small stores in Italy when I first came here, mostly because I had to talk to people. It wasn’t only the language barrier. My shopping experience in the US was much more impersonal, and I had gotten used to browsing around for as long as I wanted without asking for what I wanted or having someone wait for me to make a decision.
It’s not just about personal comfort though. I like to patronize small business owners who are making a living with their local businesses. I can also develop relationships with the people in my neighborhood and contribute to the community. And small stores are often unique with their own personalities, whereas large chains are meant to be the same no matter where they are located.
I remember how sad I felt as a child when the corner pharmacy in my grandparents’ neighborhood, where my dad used to drink ice cream sodas when he was a kid, and where my cousins and I used to gather our change and buy candy, was torn down and a 7-11, a chain convenience store, was built.
I liked the sewing machine sales and repair shop I visited that morning when I first looked for an iron (they only had professional ones with boilers). There were old and new sewing machines throughout the room, some in various stages of repair. My great-grandmother always said to spend more on something of quality and it will last a lifetime. I’d like to add, and if it breaks, which will probably happen less often, have it repaired instead of throwing it away (causing more resources to be wasted and where it might end up in the ocean).
These experiences are certainly still possible in the US, though less so than in the past since many independent stores have gone out of business. And I see that in Italy, there are now many large shopping malls and big box stores which are full of customers.
I may have fallen into a little nostalgia with this post, but my practical point is that I have the opportunity to choose with my wallet, so to speak, and make choices to keep a little diversity alive.