Grand Avenue at night.  (Photo by tboard via flickr under a creative commons license attribution/noncommercial)

Grand Avenue at night. (Photo by tboard via flickr under a creative commons license attribution/noncommercial)

Grand Avenue serves the community as more than a shopping district.  This is a rally supporting immigrants.  (photo by Krista 76 via Flickr under a Creative Commons License atribution/noncommercial)

Grand Avenue serves the community as more than a shopping district. This is a rally supporting immigrants. (photo by Krista 76 via Flickr under a Creative Commons License atribution/noncommercial)

Now that the holiday season is hard upon us, let me make a timely confession: I love to go shopping.

I know that sounds peculiar coming from a guy, especially one who over the years has written many articles extolling sustainability, questioning consumerism and chronicling his own efforts to lead the simple life.

Let me explain. I don’t buy much when I shop. In fact, I’m not sure most people—especially store owners—would even think of me as a shopper. I am more of a hanger-on or, to be precise, a hanger-out. What I love is walking around bustling shopping districts, feeling part of the scene and then stopping at some kind of café to relax.

Shopping may be to Americans what high-fat food is to the French—not an entirely justifiable thing but one that we as a people excel at and which offers many of us sincere pleasure. At its best, going shopping can bring us together in an atmosphere of congeniality and common purpose.

I am writing this at a pub on Grand Avenue in St. Paul—a wonderful neighborhood street full of interesting shops, most of them locally run. On Saturdays, Grand Avenue is arguably the streetlife headquarters for the whole Twin Cities, outperforming both downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul for urban energy. Today smiling flocks of Christmas shoppers are strolling the sidewalks, popping in and out of stores, restaurants and taverns.

I spend Saturdays on Grand Avenue because my son takes jazz lessons at a nearby music school. He plays the stand up bass, which is cumbersome to carry on the bus all the way from Minneapolis, so I drive him over each week and then happily walk up and down the avenue for a couple of hours.

Although not carrying a shopping list, I did wind up buying a few holiday gifts that caught my eye in store windows and some shampoo that I forgot I needed until passing a soap shop. That’s my kind of shopping, mostly a sideshow to the essential human pastime of being out in public.

In these perilous economic times I worry about the future of Grand Avenue and other great shopping streets I love—from neighborly Court Street in Brooklyn to downtown Avenue G in Fort Madison, Iowa, to modest Cortland Avenue in the Bernal Heights neighborhood of San Francisco.

I could probably buy stuff cheaper at Wal-Mart than on Grand Avenue, if cheap stuff is what truly matters to me. And it’s certainly less expensive to pull a pale ale out of the icebox at home than order one here at the Wild Onion pub. But the little dab of money I would save is a poor substitute for the sense of community and fun I find here.

Grand Avenue is, for me, a favorite form of entertainment, which costs a lot less than a flat screen TV, NBA season tickets, a night at the opera or a magazine subscription. I don’t mind paying a modest cover charge to watch the action that unfolds along the avenue each Saturday. It’s a far better show than I’d find at any big box or strip mall.

This holiday season and throughout the tough economic period that follows, we need to make special effort to support the kind of business districts that not only offer merchandise but also provide us with a great sense of place. We will be even poorer, if they disappear from our lives.

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