Ira BlutreiPersonal touch is priceless in our consumer societyh

Volume 79, Number 20 | October 21 – 27, 2009

West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Talking Point

Personal touch is priceless in our consumer society

By Jane Flanagan  

The other day, I went shopping for a refrigerator. My favorite model was an Electrolux. “Don’t they make vacuums?” I also really liked another fridge, a Jenn-Air, but the salesman said that it was really made by Whirlpool. Whirlpool? Don’t they make washing machines?

Over in the corner was a Frigidaire that was interesting and, well, it had the advantage of sounding like a refrigerator. But I was told that no, Maytag makes Frigidaires now. Maytag? That lonely Maytag repairman was a washing machine guy, right?  

The other day I went to a health-food store to buy my favorite toothpaste made by Tom’s of Maine. I learned that Tom is no longer making toothpaste or anything else. He sold the company to, well, I don’t know, some big company.

I’m middle-aged now and set in my ways. I like to buy from people and companies that I know. I also sense all this anonymity is at the heart our national problems. Take that Simmons Mattress Company. It seems it was bought seven times by “private equity” firms. I’ve always wondered what private equity meant and now I finally get it. These guys borrow a lot of money to buy a company. As proprietors they are entitled to borrow a lot more for improvements. Hard to say about the improvements but they did reimburse themselves with a sizeable profit. Then they sold to the next guy. The musical chairs stopped last year when no one could borrow any more money, and now this week Simmons filed for bankruptcy. Simmons — I know that’s a mattress company.  I’ve bought from them. I’d buy again. If only it weren’t bankrupt.

And what’s Tom doing now anyway?  Retirement, you know, especially at an early age, can be bad for you. I was just talking to a friend who described a wealthy guy — a financier — who retired early because he already had more money than God. He stayed home in his den playing on the computer. Soon, his back started to ache, painkillers followed. Next thing he was in surgery. Now he’s working at a golf course to stave off further medical calamities.

Last week I read about an Angus Beef hamburger that nearly killed a woman and left her paralyzed. That Angus Beef patty came from five slaughterhouses around the country and one in Uruguay. Uruguay? That woman’s hamburger patty was bought in Sam’s Club, owned by Wal-Mart. I think back on all the trips I have made to Wal-Mart. The disgruntled, blue-vested salesperson under the neon lights who can’t afford health insurance or much else. I’m sure he or she would rather not sell homicidal meat for a nonliving wage. There must be a better way.

One of the favorite moments of my week is going down to the deli and talking to Frank. He’s been managing the place for years and has a long and loyal clientele. We talk about the Yankees and the Giants, he gives my kid a hard time about the Mets. I’m not worried about being poisoned. Maybe Frank dreams about retiring but he doesn’t seem unhappy. And his back is in great shape. 

And then there’s Charlie, who runs that fantastic Middle Eastern food store in my neighborhood. He is second generation, now of retirement age himself. But he’s still working and I love that guy. He is warm and friendly and always glad to see me. I swear I think that’s what I want in a shopping experience more than anything else. Someone who is really glad to see me. One time I came in and was alarmed to find Charlie on a walker.

“What happened?!” I asked.

He went on vacation, that’s what. He got to a European destination and the first day out he trips on the sidewalk and dislocates his hip. So he came back to work. A week later he was off the walker and holding the door for his customers. A happy man.