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Downtown View: Local Wins Every Time

If corporations are people, they can be just as infuriating, illogical and unhelpful as people can be—you know, people like Boston drivers and some acquaintances that one keeps at arms’ length.

Corporations are hard to keep at arm’s length. A friend of mine has a landline. It rang repeatedly for no reason. The choices the Verizon customer service number provided had no category for a ringing phone and no way to speak to an actual person. Verizon, a phone company, apparently does not want to talk on the phone.

Orbitz got one young man in its clutches and wouldn’t let him go. His is a common name. Obitz emailed him confirmations of plane tickets someone with the same name had bought. He explained the problem to actual people in a 90-minute conversation. The next day he got another confirmation of the same tickets the other man had bought. More 90-minute conversations. As I write this, the matter is still unsolved.

Recently I dealt with American Airlines and their branded Mastercard. Their flyer advertised a new card with a couple of services I needed. Plus it gave me 50,000 air miles. So I signed up. But I got no air miles. Why? Because they didn’t consider my card “new” even though it was a different card and they sent it to me “new.” No representative or fine print addressed any restrictions. Truth in advertising is apparently not a feature of AA’s Mastercard.

One friend told me her experience with Hertz was too painful to go into.

I bet you’ve had your own experiences with large companies whose policies, phone trees, ill-informed employees, web site issues and marginally criminal practices make you want to jump in Boston Harbor to cool yourself down. But sometimes you have to use a national car rental service, an airline or a phone company, as unpleasant as it might be.

A silver lining exists in this frustration. A backlash against mega-businesses has brewed. It seems real and lasting.

It happened first in the food industry. People are flocking to farmers’ markets and local restaurants and bypassing big chain restaurants and traditional supermarkets with their food-like items.

It is happening in brick and mortar bookstores, the business Amazon was supposed to have eliminated. Downtown Boston has lost most bookstores. But two I’m familiar with, one in Brookline, another in Peterborough, New Hampshire, have become profitable gathering places where readers meet authors, chat with other readers and get suggestions on what to read. They can browse through used books too. So even bookstores can survive.

Customers seem disinclined to desert our local shops for the big boys too. High rents and sales tax obligations that many online shops don’t have to pay for challenge the small shops. Yet those along our commercial streets are doing well. Remember when prognosticators warned that local shops would die out because of big-box stores and the internet?

Jesse Baerkahn, my go-to guy for answers to retail questions, explained why that didn’t happen. He said small retailers are more focused in their offerings and their small size makes shopping efficient. Good customer service—something the examples at the beginning of the column show lacking in big corporations—brings shoppers back.

Shopkeepers in small retail outlets play a curatorial role that one can’t find easily online, said Baerkahn. Type in “shoes” and you’ll get a infinite number of choices. But successful shopkeepers choose merchandise with an educated eye, and customers who like their taste will keep coming back.

The service one gets from our local, downtown shops can’t be beaten. People in my neighborhood often cite one particular business, but every downtown neighborhood has some of these.

Here’s a recent story my friend Katharine related. St. Paul’s Cathedral on Tremont Street recently installed a beautiful white cross-section of chambered nautilus on its blue timpanum, the triangle over its front door.

“In celebration the cathedral’s dean hired fire eaters and fire jugglers and asked me to provide two people to stand on the steps of the cathedral and swing pots of incense (“thurifers” swinging “thuribles”) to attract a crowd as the nautilus’s lights were lit for the first time,” she said.

“I needed two small bowls to hold our special burning charcoal, and an easy way to light the briquettes. I went to Charles St. Supply to consult with Jack Gurnon. He provided me with two small metal bowls and said they’d be sturdy enough. Then he got me a flame thrower for small blow-torching needs, and demonstrated how to screw it into a mini-propane tank. He showed me how to do it all—my crew having formerly used a candle and much patience to warm the gun powder-infused charcoal. We were thrilled with the new technology.”

I have my own neighborly Charles St. Supply story. My granddaughter needed a jump rope and she designated me to solve her problem. Jack was frustrated that he couldn’t find one in his store. So his sister Meg ran upstairs to her apartment and emerged with two jump ropes that her daughter no longer used. No sale, just a gift.

You won’t get that kind of service at Home Depot (or Mastercard, for that matter.)

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at