Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Living Here: Shopping Locally


A walk down to the Santiago market area yesterday reminded me how different shopping can be in Mexico. It's something you get accustomed to and don't notice once you've lived here awhile.

I try to patronize the small, locally-owned businesses. Shopping at big malls and large chain stores is just about the same anywhere in the world these days, but the mom-and-pop stores in Mexico offer things not available any longer elsewhere.

First stop, the auto parts store for new limpiaparabrisas, windshield wiper blades.

I took in one of the worn-out blades from my car so I would have an example. These small stores don't always carry name brands or have a huge book listing the exact part necessary for an individual make and model year of car, so it's a good idea to have an example for comparison to be sure what you're buying will fit. The guy measured the blade, and then asked me, "Do you want just one?" In the States, folks generally replace wiper blades in pairs, under the assumption that when one starts streaking, the other is soon to follow. Not so here, where people often try to eek out the last bit of use from an item before buying a replacement.

When I told the salesman I needed two, the next question was, "Do you want two the same size?" Now I guess it might seem a little odd that someone would buy two blades of different sizes, but actually the rear window wiper on my car is smaller, and I guess someone might come in and buy two replacements of different sizes. The counter guy was being thorough.

So I bought my replacement wiper blades, each complete with metal armature and adapters to make sure it fits on the wiper arm of any car. I got exactly what I needed, no more, no less. I paid seventy-six pesos, or about $5.55 in the United States. Not a bad deal, and quite a bit less than I would have paid in a larger, fancier store, or anywhere north of the border.

The smaller stores mostly cater to neighborhood residents who need to make their pesos go as far as possible. These kinds of no-frills places are exactly the opposite of the Costco and box store model, where shoppers buy items pre-packaged and often in quantity. Need one picture hanger? Well, in the big store, the smallest quantity available in blister-packs is probably a dozen, so you might end up paying for eleven more than you need. But in the small neighborhood stores you can save money by buying only the quantity you can use.

If you need one nail, one screw, or just a couple ounces of plaster or paint thinner, the neighborhood Mexican store is the kind of place for you.

So next I headed to the tlapalería, or hardware store. I had a couple of faucets that were dripping, something common around here with our hard, mineralized water.

The tlapalería is the kind of place with a long counter separating the customers from the merchandise, which is contained in bins and boxes on high shelves along the walls and "out back." You tell the man what you need, and he brings examples to the counter for inspection. Liquids are measured into small containers, and quantities of other items are counted or weighed. Advice is plentiful and free.

I bought six rubber and leather washers to repair dripping faucets. They came out of huge bins, and look as if they were punched by hand from old tires or other repurposed material. But they work fine, and I would much prefer to buy parts made by small businesses in Mexico, without the wasteful packaging seen in larger stores, and in just the quantity I need. Six washers cost me six pesos, or about forty-five cents.

The tlapalería owner even manufactures his own packaging. When I had paid for my purchases, the guy slipped them into a small paper bag, made from a recycled catalog page which he'd folded in half and glued along two edges, leaving one end open to create an envelope into which he slipped my washers. The handmade bag also has a hand-lettered publicity flyer glued onto the front, listing products available along with the store address, phone number and the fact that the tlapalería is open on Sundays.

My windshield wipers are renewed and my faucets are fixed. All with economy, recycling and the money spent in the local community. I also stopped at the bank along the way. Total distance walked was about six blocks and time spent a little more than half an hour. Neighbors greeted me on the walk home. That's something I can buy into.


Here's another post on Economy.

21 comments:

  1. It took me a bit to warm to the hardware store system of "behind the counter" inventory. But I really appreciate it now. The counter clerk always asks about my project and often has a better option than I had in mind. Rather like the hardware store in the little town of my youth.

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    1. Yes, Steve, I remember this type of hardware store from my childhood. I particularly appreciate the advice and alternatives I find out about when chatting with the owner. This saves me even more money and time, usually.

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  2. Wren Marie HarringtonMay 22, 2012 at 9:59 AM

    Loved reading about your shopping experiences! I also am trying to twist my tongue back to normal shape after pronouncing "tlapaleria"! I agree that the shopkeepers are helpful and accommodating - I remember going into a tlapaleria in Merida after getting the crazy idea of installing a hammock in my New York city apartment. Even though the clerk SURELY realized how difficult the task would be, he thoughtfully introduced the proper equipment, compassionately described the problems I might encounter, and gave me the best recommendations he knew. NOT your everyday Home Depot clerk! Thanks again for this fabulous blog!

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    1. Wren, you didn't tell us how the "crazy idea" of a hammock in NY turned out...

      I agree, one of the greatest parts of shopping in the little stores is the personalized attention.

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  3. I'm like you, I like the local stores, and I like to go, get waht I want, and go. Now Tom, he likes to wander the aisles, up and down, left and right. That's why we don't go shopping together.

    But we do both like to support our local stores!

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    1. I do the same, occasionally hitting the big stores for things that they are "good at." I don't ALWAYS want to buy in small quantities or to keep going back for more. The big bales of toilet paper at Costco come to mind. I can afford to buy this item in quantity, and don't want to be running to the corner every time the bathroom roll runs out (sometimes very inconveniently).

      By the way, thanks to you and Tom for being so generous with your flowers!

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  4. Excelent article Marc, I do enjoy shopping in the little stores, i learn more about my city and the traditions hanging around tienditas and tlapalerias in Santiago. In my tienditas video the man from the last store says, In the supermarket you can't buy just one canddle, here in my tiendita if you want just one candle i sell you just one candle.

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    1. Thank you for commenting Arturo.

      I also patronize the little tiendas. Something I do when new foreign neighbors move in and want to know how to meet people and learn Spanish is tell them to go to the little neighborhood stores. The owners are usually happy to talk with them and are patient when newcomers don't speak much Spanish. It's a great way to make friends and spending money there helps the community.

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  5. When I was in Melaque I really appreciated the local food markets and how accomodating they are. Buying a smaller cabbage then the ones they carried was no problem, they immediately cut it into two pieces, and charged only for half. If you overbought, (like I'm inclined to), and was on a bicycle they found someone to deliver to your home, again, - no problema.

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    1. Of course you are right Andean, the smaller family-owned businesses provide personal service that is no longer available in "more developed" countries. And it's a great loss to them.

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  6. People are so helpful at the neighborhood stores. I also see them as great opportunities to learn and practice new Spanish words and sentences. If I'm organized I'll look things up and write down some notes before I go.

    Do you go to the Tlapaleria called "The Sadness" (La Tristeza)? I always wondered how it got that name.

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    1. Debbie, you do just what I used to do frequently (and still do occasionally): study up on the vocabulary and go down to the store. It's a wonderful way to learn Spanish.

      No, I've never been to "La Tristeza" that I know of. But sometimes I am oblivious to the names. Where is it?

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    2. It's right across from the Santa Ana market. I'm momentarily forgetting the number of the street (the one at the foot of Paseo de Montejo). Ah, there it is on the Google Map. Calle 47.

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    3. I've walked by there many, many times and now I recall having noticed it. I'll pay more attention next time I pass that way.

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  7. I once had a Mazda with a 19" Driver's wiper and a 21" Passenger side wiper. (Or was it the other way?) I was constantly buying matched pairs, then learning one was too short or too long. So... it happens!

    We do the same: shop at the little places as much as possible. And faucets with replaceable washers seem to hold up than faucets with modern 'cartridges' and all those tiny parts which sarro-up in no time.

    Thanks for another great account of life in Merida.

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    1. It's nice that wipers are available singly at the smaller stores. I also have a single rear window wiper, and it's next on the replacement list...

      I also like the simple, old-fashioned faucets. I end up replacing washers every six months or so, but if the mechanism is simple, nothing much else can go wrong. KISS is the best philosophy for most things mechanical in this climate and with our water.

      Y-Man, I just belatedly added your blog to my blog roll.

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  8. Marc,
    Thank you for your note.

    I tend to write comments more frequently than diaries. Being a bit dyslexic and having a wandering mind, it is hard to put together a longer diary post than a comment. I need to read it over and over, edit, edit, read, read, edit again. It gets exhausting.

    So, it tends to be that I write something when I'm passionate about it and that leads to the impression that I'm always in a rage. haha.. Well, not "rage", but a bit fired up, perhaps.

    I love reading your posts here because they seem so effortless. I'm sure that is far from the case, but the reading is smooth, the thoughts peaceful, the company pleasant.

    I hope to diary more and get better at writing. Not really being a trained writer, I'm trying to pick up things from others in the area.

    Thank you again for all the nice things you share about your life in Yucatan.

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    1. Well, the writing is not effortless, but I find that once I get an idea, it pretty much fills itself out in my mind before I ever try to write it. I don't know why that happens, but I suppose it's just habit.

      I do know that among the best ways to improve writing are to read and analyze others' good writing, and to write a lot. Many who are serious put aside time every day to write, and they write, write, write. I am not quite that dedicated, but I do try to sit down and write a couple of times every week.

      I appreciate your comments, and look forward to following your blog more regularly.

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  9. I agree with your shopping methods, not only are you supporting local business but it's a lot more personal and fun. Our version of your hardware store in Patzcuaro is Vidrio Electico and in 5 years of shopping there I don't think I was ever told that they couldn't give me something I needed.

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    1. Absolutely. The personalized and friendly service at the local small businesses can't be equalled by the big stores. But the most important thing is supporting the neighborhood and local area economy.

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  10. I do love the personalized service of shopping in Mexico. Having spent hours wandering the large home stores up here (most of our little hardware places having succumbed as a result of the giants popping up everywhere), I appreciate even more the welcome, the offer to assist, the effort made to find just the right thing. And I detest having to buy screws and nails in large quantities or in those stupid blister packs. This is an improvement? I don't think so. In our little Chuburna market, I can buy one egg or three or a dozen. I can get a hunk of cheese just the size I want cut off the big wheel kept in the refrigerator. It's a pleasure to buy just what I need in just the right amount. Missing Mexico tonight.

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