I’m not a shopper. For most of my existence, I dreaded the weeks leading up to Christmas mainly because I knew that it would require me to go to the Maine Mall, or some other shopping complex to buy gifts that I was never quite sure that the recipients wanted (or needed).
The past several years, my wife and I have de-escalated gift giving—one of the benefits being that I’ve been able to eliminate the stress of fighting crowds as the holiday season approached. Better, the four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas have become bearable and even, dare I say, enjoyable—this for someone that could be characterized as a bit of a scrooge (Mrs. B says I was much more than a “bit” of a scrooge). Maybe I'm like the Grinch, and my heart has grown a size or two bigger?
Actually, Christmas, at least in its most traditional sense and accompanied by magic, always held a special place for me. Even as an adult, while hating many of the commercial conventions that characterized the holiday, I would take pleasure in things that become part of my own traditions—A Charlie Brown Christmas, It’s A Wonderful Life, and books that elevated Christmas to a place beyond the crassness of business bottom lines.
For some reason, this year's ramp up to Christmas hasn't seemed very Christmas-like, commercialism, or not. I have sort of felt like Charlie Brown, searching for the “true meaning of Christmas.”
Today, Mrs. B. and I decided to make our seasonal trip to Bath, and do a wee bit of Christmas shopping. This holiday visit to one of the state’s few remaining vibrant downtowns always leaves me feeling better about the upcoming holiday, even given the attendant trappings and commercial pitfalls.
Visiting Bath’s downtown shopping district always involves a stop at Reny’s Department Store, a place that reminds me of the downtown shopping experiences I recall, when I was a kid, in Lewiston, and Portland, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, before malls and big-box retail become intertwined with Baby Jesus. For those of us that remember Peck’s (considered “Maine’s first and [at one time] largest department store), Woolworth’s, and Spark’s in Lewiston, and Porteous, Mitchell, and Braun in Portland, to name but one of many downtown retailers, most defunct, or at least, relocated out of downtown, a visit to Bath helps one relive one’s first retail experiences 40 years ago, before malls were ubiquitous.
We began the day at Fort Andross, picking out fresh ingredients for tonight’s dinner, as well as baked goods and locally-raised bacon for Christmas day. The indoor farmers’ market continues to be vibrant, and it’s exciting to know that local farmers benefit when Mainers make simple, yet profound decisions to support local, sustainable agriculture practices.
Having the opportunity to score fresh greens and beets from Fishbowl Farm, and turnips and carrots from Six River Farm, both farms located near one another in Bowdoinham, is a real treat in the middle of December. There was a time when fresh veggies like these were something that one dreamed of in the dead of winter, imagining warmer days returning, along with yummy produce grown during Maine’s short growing season.
I want to illustrate a clear example of how local buying behavior can influence farmers and other suppliers participating in something like Brunswick’s winter market. Mary and I, while picking out our fresh produce at the Fishbowl Farm booth, had a nice conversation with the young young lady manning their table. When we mentioned how much we have been enjoying the indoor market at Fort Andross, she said that local farmers like Fishbowl are able to take on supplying consumers and their desire for fresh produce throughout the winter, if they know that the market can support their efforts. Buying local does matter, as studies clearly indicate.
Beyond the mere economic data, and agricultural sustainability that shopping at the local farmers' market is this. When I was picking up my turnips from Nate, from Six River Farm, who had both the larger, traditional-style turnips, and beautiful, white turnips, that are smaller, which the small card accompanying the display said, "great in salads," he mentioned that they were also great roasted. I've mashed turnips, boiled them and eaten them with butter and salt/pepper, but never roasted them. He gave me a few hints, and last night, we roasted up a pan of turnips, garlic, and onions, drizzled with olive oil. It was a unique and tasty alternative, as the roasting and olive oil brings a carmelized quality to the turnips and accompanying onions and garlic cloves. Never underestimate the personal touch when dealing with local purveyors. It usually is less transactional, and much more relationship in nature.
We then headed down Route 1, to Bath. Besides Reny’s, I visited a used book shop operated by the Friends of Bath Library, and the very decadent Marnie’s Cookies. I’m particularly careful about what I eat now, but if there was ever a reason to stray a bit from my caloric considerations, it is Marnie’s Shangri-La.
While downtown Bath was a wonderfully different way to spend the Saturday before Christmas, strolling along Front Street, it appeared that many people either stayed home, or chose to shop at the large retailers up the road, at Cook’s Corner, like T.J. Maxx, and Big Lots. The numbers of shoppers seemed less than I remember from other local holiday shopping excursions.
All in all, it was a fun Saturday, and I look forward to heading back to Bath again, possibly for dinner at a place like Solo Bistro.