I tried to be casual, flicking my cigarette ash on their counters, mumbling a little, dropping my g’s. “So how’s business been goin’ this Christmas?” I said to local merchants I encountered as I bought their wares.

Now this is a loaded question to ask the people who are basically paying my salary by buying ads in this newspaper. And, yes, it’s true: I only buy things from people who advertise in Wednesday Journal – with the exception of underwear and cars, since none of our advertisers currently sell those essentials.

Asking this loaded question during a heart-stopping recession, even though I chose to believe it’s the tail-end of a miserable recession, is always hard.

Have to say, though, that it got easier to ask as I made my pre-Christmas rounds because I kept getting answers like “Outstanding!” Yes, I found some very happy merchants in Oak Park and Forest Park. Where six months ago they were shell-shocked, with wide eyes and a bit of spittle at the corners of their sagging jaws, on Dec. 23 and Dec. 24 (I’m a late shopper) they were chipper and optimistic. And, oh, so relieved.

Like me, they’ve got their life’s work tied up in these burgs. And, dear readers, you came through for us. The message of shopping in town(s) seems to be taking hold. Shopping the independents is just better. It’s easy and comfortable. The merchandise is hand-selected by owners who got into retail because they love it. Menus are created by owner-chefs who have a passion for food. And when these entrepreneurs say, “Thank you,” that phrase isn’t coming out of a training film. They actually mean it. Even when the owner has a little attitude, it’s genuine attitude.

Now, how do I know that these merchants and restaurateurs weren’t lying through their teeth and just telling me that everything was coming up poinsettias this holiday? Because if they were lying to me, they’d be telling me that everything was terrible – just like they’ve been telling me for the 30 years I’ve been working here: “Ah, Dan, it is just horrible. Never been worse. Don’t think I can keep up the payments on the Lexus parked right in front of my store in a gross insult to my customers who can’t find a parking spot. It’s a little game we play!”

This year, the merchant class is so stunned that business is actually good, they’re telling the truth. That truth is immediately followed by some story about the first quarter of 2009 when they all felt the earth was coming off its axis as good customers went into the bunkers.

Sure, we’ve got stories in today’s paper about Villager Foods likely closing, which is very sad because Butch Novak is a good man. And we’re reporting that Lido’s Caffe, the year-old coffee shop in the old Abrahamson’s Furriers spot on Marion Street, isn’t going to make it. Both real-world stories, but not the whole picture of where local shopping is at as 2010 begins.

Things are improving. Slowly and with some lurches, but getting better. Shoppers, you can pick up some clearance bargains or maybe take a short break. But Valentine’s Day is around the corner. Spring merchandise is on order. The ads will soon be placed. And the continued pleasure of your company is requested.

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Dan Haley

Dan was one of the three founders of Wednesday Journal in 1980. He’s still here as its four flags – Wednesday Journal, Austin Weekly News, Forest Park Review and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark – make...