Christmas shopping: A pink kitchen set and the 'buying local' dilemma

I wasted hours looking for a cheaper version online, when my dad was willing to pay more at the local store. He made me realize that I was all about 'buying local' until I had to shell out more money. I've learned: I can’t always pay more, but I don’t always have to pay less.

Mike Spencer/Wilmington Star-News/AP
Junikqul Bracey carries a Disney Ultimate Fairytale Kitchen set toward the checkout at the Target store near Wilmington, N.C. Nov. 22.

My father called me in distress. “I can’t do it, Brookie,” he told me. “I couldn’t show my face downtown at Haines & Essick if we buy the kitchen online.”

He was trying to buy a Christmas present for my three-year-old at a store in Decatur, Ill. where I grew up, but I had found a less expensive toy kitchen online. I shouldn’t have gotten involved, but in my constant pursuit of a better deal, and my inherent cheapness, I didn’t want him to pay too much. Now in addition to squashing his enthusiasm and Christmas spirit, I seemed to be stomping on my father’s moral code.

Every holiday season, he sends me a check to pick out gifts for my children, except last year. During our Thanksgiving visit to Illinois, Dad got such a kick out of watching his granddaughter pretend to cook he decided she needed her own mini range and refrigerator.

On his lunch hour from the firm where he has worked since the day he graduated from law school, Dad went to Haines & Essick. The small stationary and gift store has been a Decatur institution since 1902. Today, it is one of the few stores left downtown, which sadly has more parking spaces than places to shop.

Before we were even back home in Maine, Dad had e-mailed me a picture of a kitchen the store could ship just in time for Christmas. My 70-year-old father had never sent me anything online so his behavior was noteworthy. We do e-mail, but it’s a process that involves his secretary, Ginger, printing out my messages for him to read, and then my Dad dictaphones his response for Ginger to type up and e-mail back to me.

The kitchen in the picture was fabulous. It had a wooden oven and a microwave, plenty of refrigerator space for fake food and even a drink dispenser – but the price tag quite literally took my breath away. For a moment, I thought if my father was willing to fork over $300 for a toy maybe I could talk him into remodeling my actual kitchen.

I spent the morning online pricing other toy kitchens, until I located a pink retro model from the same company for a third of the price.

My e-mail with the lower-priced model presented my Dad with a quandary: Mrs. Miller in the Haines & Essick’s toy department had spent a lot of time helping him select the kitchen set; it didn’t seem right for him to go buy it cheaper somewhere else.

By the time he got me on the phone, Dad had been to Haines & Essick four times and was having Ginger hold all his calls while he figured out how to fairly procure his granddaughter’s present. Mrs. Miller could order the pink kitchen I found online, but not at the same price. After discussing numerous scenarios, she conceded that my Dad should take the better deal online. During his third visit, Dad tried to pay Mrs. Miller some arbitrary finder’s fee, handing her a hundred dollar bill that she refused to take.

In the end, my father bought the pink kitchen from Haines & Essick even though it cost him more.

I’ve always thrown around the term “buying local,” and thought I walked the walk: I frequent farm stands and independent bookstores. After college, during my self-righteous phase when I came back home and threw around all the new jargon I learned, I no doubt lectured my father on the importance of “buying local” and eating “locally-sourced food” – things he had done all his life without affixing a fancy term to it.

My father made me realize that I was all about “buying local” until I had to shell out more money. Granted I do not have a lot of extra cash, which influences my decisionmaking, but I also waste a lot of time trying to get a perceived deal. I spent four hours looking for a cheaper kitchen, time that I could have been working, and billing, for a grant I was supposed to be writing. It wasn’t even my money. Why was I so determined to get the best deal?

For my father, whose hero is Abraham Lincoln, buying the cheap kitchen online was a kind of dishonesty.

Haines & Essick is his store – the store down the street from his office where people know his name. It’s the store where he has bought Christmas gifts for my brother and me for 40 years. During my visit home, I was glad to see that it was still there. But I had to admit, if people like me continue to buy everything online or at chain stores, it might not be there in the future. And I know through my work as a grant writer, that it’s the local merchants who sponsor the Little League teams, Meals on Wheels, and other important community programs – not the big box stores. Local merchants may have to charge more, but they also give back to their communities.

I realize, I can’t always pay more, but I don’t always have to pay less. I like to think I buy local. My dad actually does.

Brooke Williams is a freelance writer.

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