Buying local— again

Downtown Toledo will never again be the retail mecca it once was, but shopping locally still makes sense


Forty or 50 years ago, the idea that a group like Toledo Choose Local would have to campaign to get people to patronize local merchants to do their holiday shopping, or at any other time, would have appeared preposterous.

Toledoans of a certain age can still recall when they did most of their shopping downtown. And unlike the big-box chains that now lace the suburbs, retail destinations of yesteryear were mostly locally owned.

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It was pretty much the same in cities nationwide, before the Internet took a big bite of retail sales and urban sprawl sucked much of the money, commerce, and population to the suburbs and ex-urbs. Downtown, as Petula Clark sang in a No. 1 hit in 1964, was a place of bright lights, noise, and hurry, where everything waited for you.

Back then, Toledo shoppers didn’t hit the outlet malls in sweats, but got dressed up in long coats and maybe a hat. They headed downtown with their holiday lists to elegant department stores such as Lamson’s, Tiedtke’s, the Lion Store, and Lasalle’s. Downtown was a retail mecca that also included Sears Roebuck, Broer-Freeman Jewelers, and other shops.

In nearby Detroit — whose population, since the early 1950s, has dropped from nearly 2 million people to just over 700,000 — many still recall shopping at the palatial downtown Hudson’s store. It closed in 1983 and remains an enduring symbol of the Motor City’s demise.

Internet shopping — convenient, fast, cheap — has accelerated the exodus from the local retail market. But buyers don’t get a chance to try on a suit, feel the sheets, or see how the cordless vacuum works. If you don’t like the shirt or watch you bought online, repackaging and return shipping can be a hassle.

More important, Internet shopping does little for the local economy. With fewer shoppers, local businesses hire fewer local workers and pay less in local taxes that support increasingly strained local public services. Locally owned businesses also contribute more to local nonprofits and charitable work. They’re part of the community, and most feel an obligation to invest in it.

In recent years, cities have made a comeback. Especially in downtown areas, young people are looking for vibrant, walkable neighborhoods close to entertainment, shops, and mass transit. They are choosing to live and work in central cities, including Toledo.

Since the 1990s, city living has become cool again, as popular TV shows such as Friends have underscored. Urban planners and some politicians understand that reviving cities is essential to solving the nation’s most pressing environmental, economic, and energy problems.

Still, central cities such as Toledo continue to lose population overall, even as their downtowns rebound. Retail development has only begun to recover a small share of what it lost over the past 60 years.

Many people will not be able to buy everything they want — or even most of it — at locally owned independent stores. Even so, shoppers can try to buy a few items from local merchants, some of whom carry high-quality, distinctive, and hard-to-find merchandise.

There are other, less tangible benefits to choosing local: mingling with your neighbors, getting personal attention, or talking to a real person when you have a question about a product. It’s also a way to give your city, and yourself, an early holiday gift.

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A bright downtown Toledo was a festive place for holiday shoppers in past years.
A bright downtown Toledo was a festive place for holiday shoppers in past years.