Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Powells in Portland is so big it has branches, like a county library.
This was my fav.  Specialized in Native American.

When I was circuit-riding around the state, I saw that there were three distribution lines that terminated in Montana: one from Minneapolis, one from Salt Lake City, and one on the West Coast.  In Billings there was also one from Denver.  Some Missoulians, esp. young people, treat Portland like a distant suburb.  Only the Blackfeet in my experience look north to Calgary and Lethbridge, though both are bigger and more sophisticated than any city in Montana and as close as Great Falls.  Yet Valier, only thirty miles away from Heart Butte which is bigger, lives behind a glass wall between them and the rez.

The Internet used book market redistributes books from throughout the WORLD (I get books from Ireland and Australia), taking them from shrinking or unused libraries and delivering them to me in my mailbox, one by one.  But I don't pick them off shelves myself -- the computer tells me where they are and the distribution system delivers them.  The success of ebooks is partly about the physical problem of moving heavy objects around -- which I’ve wrestled with since my undergrad days.  When my parents came to Chicago with the camp trailer to take me home after college graduation, they were stunned by the number of whisky boxes I had filled with books that had to go along.  But my father’s rule was “no good book is left behind” so I was not forced to abandon them.

In the end, we shipped them by railroad and when those same boxes reached Browning, MT, where I got my first job, Jimmy Fisher had to go fetch them in the school pickup.  He enjoyed kidding me about my drinking habits.  But they were really in whisky boxes because those were the right size and therefore weight for someone to carry.  I would argue that I got more drunk on books.  They were not novels, but rather books of ideas.  

Now I can summon up whole books on the computer, but -- even better -- I have access to articles, conversations, and organizations.  Parallel to music, I don't have to buy albums -- I can buy singles.  Ideas can be caught on the fly and then in a couple of months, a person can check back to see how they have developed.  In the past a book I really wanted might be published when I was at low ebb on money and by the time I knew about it and had the cash, it was out-of-print.  No more.  Now by the time I have the money, the book is second-hand and less expensive.

Strangely, I discover that the kind of peanut butter I want (because it has only one gram of sugar, rather than six) is available from Amazon for about the same price as the local stores.  Extra shipping, though, because it's heavy.

All accessible sources, including the government, pay close attention to the distribution of money, but are essentially blind (or seem so) when it comes to food distribution.  The waste of food in this country, I’m guessing, is partly due to untimely, inappropriate, and perishable food delivery.  I look at this through the lens of my own patterns, but they are revealing.  I had an interesting conversation with a grocery man about this peanut butter. His warehouse had it.  But the customers like more high sugar versions, maybe mixed with jelly -- diabetes or no diabetes, so my brand may disappear.

IMHO, the main factor that is restricting the growth of small towns is not whether they are building new houses, the one thing they seem to see as the key.  Rather it is something they can’t see:  xenophobia.  Fear of what is outside their known world, their comfort zone, their “high school rules” developed by growing up together for generations.  The town is run by the same people who ran high school social life:  the princesses, the athletic stars and those with strong families.  But not necessarily who you might expect.  By now, they've "plateaued", to use the grocery man's word.

In a nearby town's school there was a hazing system in a class with a lot of big football players.  One boy, unathletic, was never teased, bumped, insulted in the way the others were.  I asked a lawyer’s daughter why not.  (She always knew everything.)  She told me the boy’s father’s name, a boy I had known when HE was fifteen.  “He’s in a motorcycle gang.  NO ONE messes with them.”  (I suspected that that included the police.)  Neither boy, father or son, came from a classy high-status family, but I remember the intelligence and determination in their eyes.  They’d found an alternative route.

Little ag towns that are service providers -- not just groceries, hardware, and mechanics, but also banks, libraries, churches, laundromats, caf√©s, and -- most crucially -- schools, are supported by property taxes and trade, but also accumulate the old folks, the low-pay salaried people, and other citizens content to stay close to home.  The most recent Valierian pointed out that some of the new teachers are the GRANDDAUGHTERS of Valier High School grads.  Yet not only do the people with money and property live outside the town, so that their taxes go to the county, but also they can’t vote in town.  The interface between town and country is managed by boards, committees, districts, seasonal ceremonies, and criticism.  Public opinion.

I’m thinking about what we can do in a system controlled by distant wholesalers that make us dependent on their delivery trucks.  One strategy is the survivalist tactic: buying in bulk.  Another is the co-op solution: grouping consumers to own the business.  The classic American solution is the lively entrepreneur, but lately economics and regulations keep a lid on such a person.  Not just the big surges of credit that fade back into slumps, but the nature of small town bankers, who are as xenophobic as anyone else.  Maybe more so.  When I’ve tried to get credit locally, I’ve been treated with contempt.  But in Portland, where I bank by mail and internet, it only takes a phone call.  Of course, I do NOT abuse it.  My track record there goes back to the Seventies.

A few years ago the bread distributors announced they would no longer supply the sole Valier grocery store.  I thought, “Oh, here’s a chance for a cottage industry in a place that needs it!”  Some people have always sold fancy cakes.  But baking for sale means meeting health department restrictions so involved and draconian, so insistent on expensive machines, that it was impossible.  It turned out that the cake business was sort of underground.  

Then we thought of the Hutterites, who bake for their community anyway, but they are old-fashioned.  They may look like peasants but their idea of bread is suburban American in 1950: white, soft, sweet.  They have not thought of what is sold in trendy chain stores now: unbleached rustic loaves with a lot of seeds and nuts.  But those trendy loafs don't have preservatives and need frequent deliveries.

In terms of time, a whole parallel invisible economy exists, and this is where major shifts have happened, some noted and some ignored, affecting both the rich and the poor. With money inflation comes time deflation.  Part of the xenophobia is simply having to work so many hours, maybe in more than one job, in order to pay for spacious houses, electronic gizmos and huge pickups.  Or, if you are poor, getting enough money for the clothes and equipment kids require and to keep marginal domestic machinery running -- washing machines and lawnmowers.  The energy to take risks is just not there.  The courage and time to find out what your kids are really up to is not there.

What happens is that the larger world suddenly breaks into the glass house.  Global warming was not just a theory.  The bankruptcy of mega-grocery suppliers or buyouts of wholesalers seemed distant but has local consequences.  An untimely fall storm wipes out a year’s profits.  The sins of the banks come down hard on people who are innocent.  Someone elsewhere on the continent strikes gas and oil in a quantity that dwarfs the Bakken.

All of it is entwined with the brute fact of thin population on a vast landscape, a factor never considered by coastal megacity thinkers.  What will we do when the gas runs out?  What does the individual do without a car or in a climate where winter means paralysis?  Can the product go to the homes, like visiting nurses or rolling libraries?  Like the Schwan’s empire?  Like Avon?   Will we go back to the way they used to do it in the old days when the grocery boy brought you your telephoned order?  The way Bountiful Baskets does it now, so that when the big truck rolls in, it’s parted out to the stakeholders on the spot?  No brick and mortar demanding rent for storage.  The Hutterites will deliver chickens and vegetables.

There is another factor, really a pair of factors, that is deeply affecting what there is to distribute.  Many processed foods are meant to be appealing if not addictive: potato chips, Twinkies and the like.  They store well.  Global advertising pushes them, we get tempted to try them and first thing you know we’re having PopTarts for breakfast instead of oatmeal.  Opposed to those forces are those of the health industry which tries to preach organic, natural, Paleolithic diets alongside expensive meds and exercise equipment.  To put it dramatically, food corporations and medical corporations are locked in combat -- one representing pleasure and convenience and the other one preaching danger, danger, danger unless one is compliant.  So we are afraid and scarf down chocolate to calm ourselves.  Distribution responds to consumption.  The snake bites its tail.  This is ecology.

And now we're back to peanut butter.  Why is this bread white?  And dump the jelly!!  But I suspect that to most people in Valier, including me, this sandwich is basic American food, reassuring in its humble familiarity.  They don't think of peanut butter being a commodity food, as rez folks do.

TRUST is the key.  AWARENESS is a second key and the more that extends out into the world, the more opportunities arise, the more preparation for inevitable downturns can be made, and the more resilient the general population can be.  COURAGE is the third key.  Put them together and strike a chord:  CREATIVITY/INGENUITY/INNOVATION.

PS:  I didn't think about home gardens, farmer's markets, and personal greenhouses.

No comments: