Most people realize that Asheville is a town full of transplants. And while everyone has their own reasons for relocating here, many of us were attracted by some of the same qualities—starting, no doubt, with the charm of our downtown. We are so fortunate to have the cultural resources we do: the craft galleries, bookstores, specialty shops, local bean dives, beer bars and breweries, historic structures, theaters, museums, buskers, record shops, head shops, barber shops, chocolate shops … the list goes on.
Because of this, I’m always mystified when I go downtown during the holiday-shopping season and there are tumbleweeds of mountain laurel blowing down Lexington Avenue. At that same moment, drivers on Tunnel Road are spending 15 minutes in stop-and-go traffic to get from the Mountaineer to the mall. It’s like all these Midwesterners (myself included) can’t help but revert to their former ways: heedless consumption in climate-controlled chain stores.
Ah, the rush of being in a mall engaged in a 20th-century-style scavenger hunt. With any luck, you have a sibling along to help ensure that you can rack up the most stuff in the least amount of time—just like in the old days. All meals are eaten out, as a corollary of the buying orgy. And for one long, blissful moment, money is no object. You’ve committed to spending at least a certain amount, so to hell with thrift!
But why not do your shopping downtown? Exchange the dry wall and cheesy skylights for classy art-deco architecture and unique street musicians. Forget the chains in the mall’s food court and choose from the best selection of mom-and-pops in the Southeast. Enlarge your tradition: Remember why you moved here. Leave the malls and big-box stores behind in Indiana and Ohio, where we fled from to begin with. If you think our downtown is charming, respond by helping keep it alive. Vote with your dollar, and pump some life into the local businesses you appreciate the most.
Commerce is an ever-evolving organism—and an unpredictable one, at that. Gentrification is not just a theory but a practice. The best way to keep our downtown relevant and accessible is to take part in it. Don’t expect to keep enjoying the drum circle if you never bring a drum to play. Don’t complain about parking if you’re afraid to walk a few blocks. Don’t appreciate the soul of Asheville 11 months out of the year and leave her high and dry in December.
We have one of the few remaining communities where you can spend a dollar and that same buck might get exchanged a dozen times before it experiences the economic flight that’s so immediate in many towns. It’s like calling in to a phonathon when somebody’s offering a two-for-one match.
True, you can’t get away with maintaining the same zombie persona you used at the mall, but you can still spend to your heart’s content (or till the bottomless feeling of material obsession manifests itself, whichever comes first). At least you did your bit to “Keep Asheville Weird.” So put your hard-earned dollar into the money recycler known as the Asheville economy. And if you’re not yet convinced of our downtown’s superiority over the area’s malls, consider this:
• Local art is usually the perfect gift for the person who “already has everything.”
• Downtown is bigger than the mall, so you’ll burn off more holiday calories.
• There’s more to the world of coffee shops than just Starbucks.
• Buying a book is a political act—so do it locally.
• By walking outdoors on a chilly day, you might actually feel like it’s Christmas.
• Shopping downtown makes you smarter and more attractive.
And if none of those arguments sways you, consider this: If we patronized locally owned downtown shops as intensively as Best Buy and Wal-Mart, the spike in local tax revenue resulting from those recycled dollars could fund a revolution (or at least help balance the city budget).
[Asheville resident Dan Clere is interested in ways to help this area prepare for a post-peak-oil future.]