Got Guilt?

If death and taxes are known certainties, then so is the New England Public Radio Fund Drive. Actually, beyond mere appendage, the Fund Drive feels like a perfect intersection of the former two: “If you don’t pay us (taxes), we won’t be around for much longer (death).” See what I mean? My morning routine has once again become desacralized. What is usually a guilt-free commute has been hijacked by the guilt-leveraging Audie Cornish and her crackpot team of penny-pinching associates.

My apparent hatred for the Fund Drive oddly counterpoints my steadfast love for NEPR. I’m a devoted daily listener, and hold their programming in fanboyishly high regard. (Audie, if you’re reading this, I was joking; I’m sorry.) I obviously owe NPR money, and I’m happy to pay for the exceptional service they provide. But I still hate the Fund Drive: the reminder that my contribution will never be enough, the lingering threat of bankruptcy, the anxiety of unfulfilled responsibility.

And then there’s the implacable, festering guilt. Even after I’ve donated to the penny-pinchers, the guilt lingers. This guilt, I think, has nothing to do with NEPR or the Fund Drive per se, but rather with much broader microeconomic questions. Am I spending my money wisely? How powerful is a dollar, really?

Earlier this week, I found myself moseying around downtown Amherst, curious to learn about this year’s dizzying business turnovers. Glazed Doughnut Shop overtook J. Gumbo’s. Thai Corner will become an El Salvadorian restaurant, and a new Thai spot will replace Moti, which will relocate to Lit’s space on Boltwood Walk. Who cares? College kids are notoriously finicky eaters; musical chairs proceeds apace. Guilt-free, I purchased some GoBerry and moseyed on with my day.

Well, the moseying was guilt-free until I moseyed past Food For Thought Books. The so-called “not-for-profit workers’ collective” was a cooperatively owned bookstore entering its 38th year of business. After a successful crowdsourcing campaign (read: Fund Drive) raised $40,573 this past winter, the prognosis was hopeful. By June, Food For Thought was forced to close its doors forever. As I peeked through the window, the store’s emptiness reflected my internal state with a sour poignancy. Got Guilt?

My moseying crumbled into moping. How could this have happened? Is it my fault? Just as the destitute seek solace in shelter, I sought solace…well, next door, at All Things Local Cooperative Market. Sunlit racks of potted plants, a groovy logo, and the ever-alluring promise of local objects beckoned me inward. The shop lives up to the promise of its name—indeed, all the things for sale are produced locally, from flour and eggs to kale and kombucha. The prices are not even close to Big Y thrifty, but more importantly, the price-to-quality ratio is aggressively reasonable.

As part of my solace-seeking, I spent a few minutes with Alan Sax, All Things Local’s general manager, and inquired about Food For Thought’s recent closure. I would characterize Sax—a white-haired, kind-eyed gentleman of formidable beard—as cautiously optimistic. His words were sparse but thoughtful, and somehow soothing in their urgency: “If local people want to see local businesses survive, they’ve got to change their shopping habits. That’s not an easy thing to do.” There’s that guilt again.

Why should I change my shopping habits? I donated to the NEPR fund drive! I bought two books and a calendar from Food for Thought in 2010! I only eat SideHill Farm’s Maple Whole Milk yogurt! Check out the bumper stickers on my Subaru!

There’s no time for defensiveness. Local businesses are on thin and thinning ice. If anyone is to blame, everyone is to blame. When I feel most guilty, it’s because I’m imagining an Amherst overrun with corporate behemoths: nationalized radio, another Starbucks, a Rite Aid, a Barnes and Noble. When I feel most guilty, it’s when I know that this day will come, and that there’s nothing that I could have done to prevent the inevitable. When I feel most guilty, it’s because I feel entirely powerless, and I want to write Socialism an apology letter, signed: “Yours truly, Capitalism.”

Hopefully I’m wrong. Active participation in a principled, self-sustaining community may well be the way forward, and All Things Local is a fantastic venue for active participation—I hope never to witness the day it meets Food For Thought in cooperative heaven. Living in persistent despondency is no way to live, so I won’t live that way.

Just this morning I heard a NEPR story about Django Camp, a Django Reinhardt-themed music program being held on Smith College’s campus this week. While listening to the report, I recalled jogging around Smith yesterday after work, overhearing the gentle waft of fiddles and guitars sliding through the glaze of early evening. And just then, I smiled a 100 percent guilt-free smile to myself, full of ownership and pride, if only for a glorious moment.•

Author: Daniel Pastan

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