Photo Credit: 123rf.com

I recently found out that two of the heimishe businesses in town were closing their doors for good. In theory, this was no big surprise. Vacant store windows had been popping up across our main street for the last eighteen months, a cruel visual reminder that the side effects of Covid transcend the virus itself. No matter what opinion you hold on the existence of the virus, no matter how you feel about vaccination or masking, the desolate empty windows and shuttered storefronts tell no lies; the world has become comfortable living life in daytime pajamas – and the future of in-person shopping is in jeopardy.

Why is this a big deal? Arguably, online shopping is wildly convenient; who cares if main street turns into a ghost town?

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Let’s say I’m a mom with an infant. I buy diapers and baby food online and it comes to the door. I love this because it’s a schlep to get my baby dressed and into the car seat, and invariably she will dirty her diaper and get hungry/tired/overstimulated and start screaming in Stop and Shop; so this online thing is awesome.

But now nebach my baby gets sick. I think it’s an ear infection, but I’m not sure. I try to get her seen in person but the only appointment available today is via telehealth. I really want my baby’s ears to be examined so I wait at an urgent care for three hours because the other doctor in town closed down, ironically, because of this urgent care. My baby needs antibiotics and the local pharmacy no longer exists because main street is dead and now I’m driving five miles to Target with a screaming sick baby…

Lest you think I’m exaggerating and the benefits of buying everything online outweighs the disadvantages, I will counter that dragging a kid along with you on a shopping trip teaches them some incredible life skills that cannot be taught by shopping in the online marketplace. Bonus points as well for a unique kind of parent/child bonding that can only be done in the car.

Now is the point in my narrative where I feel compelled to share that I love shopping. Not necessarily buying or spending money with careless abandon, but the shopping experience itself. Unlike most hard-core shoppers, I came late to this party, scarred by a long and arduous walk from 13th to 18th Avenue in Borough Park on a childhood shopping trip with my mother. With equal parts horror (me) and amusement (mom) we reminisce about how I flung myself dramatically on the iron bars of the school on 13th Avenue and begged her to leave me there. While the experience at the time was decidedly unpleasant, the memory of being with my mother on this excursion resides, oddly enough, in a happy place.

A crucial part of any shopping trip is the drive itself. In what other setting are you in close proximity to your child but not actually looking them in the eye? The scene is intimate without being intimidating and lends itself to the types of heart to heart discussions that are infinitely more awkward while sitting at the dining room table eating dinner. In hindsight, it was probably the prolonged time walking side by side with my mother that colored my arduous Borough Park journey with a positive light.

I always take the time to initiate a conversation with store cashiers. Part of my job is meeting new people and getting their life story within a fairly short window of time; so casual conversation is a skill I have honed over the years. These tiny daily interactions are the glue that holds our society together. Good morning. Thank you. Wow, I love your shirt. We don’t know each other but in our five minute interaction we have reiterated what it means to be human, to be kind, to care.

The first time I watched my daughter pay for something on her own I marveled at the sweet exchange she had with the elderly cashier. Like a sponge she had soaked up the ability to say just the right thing in just the right way. I recently went to Five Below to buy a phone case for my new phone. I was shocked beyond words that instead of a cashier, there were six self checkout stations. Although the computer greeted me very pleasantly I found it difficult to respond in kind, and as I exited the store it struck me that this transaction was no different from shopping online except for the fact that I had to get dressed.

I mentioned earlier that I love shopping. This sounds a little shallow so I’d like to elucidate. There are two types of shopping, shopping for tachlis (a purpose) and shopping for no good reason. Shopping for tachlis is horrible and stressful and should really be called hunting and gathering. Shopping for no good reason is a bonding experience, done with friends or children, and preferably takes place in a mall. There is no specific goal except togetherness and the promise of a good bargain. In fact, the cheaper an item is, the more exciting the purchase. All the senses are engaged, the smell of the perfume counter; the sounds of children laughing and whining; the visual overload of rows and rows of dresses; and the feel of the different fabrics as your fingers graze over their surface. A dress is chosen and whoever found it or loved it first tries it on. The gratification or the disappointment is instantaneous. Too short, too long, too frumpy, too inappropriate, too expensive. Encapsulated into this fifteen minute foray is a lesson in tznius and economics along with a serving of fragile teenage ego-boosting and a smattering of unconditional love. Shopping is a euphemism for a million other things, the least of which is actually purchasing an item.

The sign on the front of the seforim store is sad: “Business for sale. Store closing. Everything must go.” The store has been a fixture here for 40 years, and whatever the reasons are for its closing, there’s no question that online shopping and the pandemic did nothing to bolster its continued existence. The fact that no one has eagerly stepped up to buy it is telling as well, and quite frankly the thought of not having a store such as this in our frum community makes my heart hurt. The other store that’s closing sells frum fashion. She is closing the storefront and selling online. I get that, but again, it’s sad.

As I drove to work the other day I paid close attention to the empty storefronts. There were ghosts all around me; echoes of a glorious little book store that succumbed years ago to the larger retailers as well as the faded footsteps of other businesses whose relevance waned when the older generation passed away. I got stuck at the light at Third Avenue and made sure not to look to my left because the Store Closing sign in the seforim store had already pierced a hole through me last week; I had no more capacity for this particular brand of pain.

There’s a tiny boy crossing the street with his mother, his tiny tzitizis strings dancing with every step. What happens, I wonder, if those tiny strings get tangled, hopelessly intertwined in a friendly skirmish with his sister, rendered unwearable and gently removed. I wonder if he’ll be sad, that little boy, that he can’t get tzitzis right away, that his mommy can’t take him into town and buy a new pair because we mommies and daddies and possibly the government and some other economic factors were not responsible enough to make sure that our small little shops would endure. Or is he fine because Mommy ordered them online from Eichlers and they come in a day, and this tiny newfangled person understands that we don’t buy things from real stores anymore.

We murmur softly at the shul kiddush about the imminent closures. Over hot kugel we reassure ourselves that the owner of the seforim store is retiring, closing his business because he wants to and not because he has to. The clothing store, we rationalize, will do better online. No rent, we say, it will save her so much money. Soothing words, spoken earnestly and without guile. The elephant in the room is too cumbersome to be allowed entry – the possibility that we, as individuals, as a community, as a society, were all complicit in the stores’ extinction.

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Dr. Chani Miller, the mother of two daughters, is the chief optometrist at Park Eye Center, a private optometric practice in Highland Park, NJ.