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The Day the Baker in My Town Closed Shop

Saturday, July 04, 2009 at 09:50 AM EDT

There was once a baker in the town I lived in. He and wife and two daughters each evening mixed the dough, let it ferment, and in the wee hours of the morning lit his oven with firewood to bake fresh and fluffy breads. He then delivered the labor of his love to his customers in the town on a bicycle, with a rubber horn heralding his arrival at the crack of dawn. His job done, the baker went to sleep.

Competition and modernization caught up with the baker and his family. He toyed at one point with mechanization, but that required capital. An entrepreneur who knew very little about the art of making breads, but had a lot of capital, started a mechanized bakery which offered breads that were very cheap, and yes excited the local consumers who were told they were made hygienically, made in accordance with modern global practices, and even had vitamins added to the dough.

Soon the entrepreneur was supplying to a number of towns and cities in the state, and re-located his factory in a cheaper town. To make his operations more cost-efficient, he began delivering bread to my town every three days. Preservatives in his breads kept them going that long.

Our neighborhood baker in the meanwhile folded up his business, and to avoid the ignominy (as he saw it) of working as an employee for the mechanized bakery, took to home delivery of newspapers. All this has happened in the last about ten years or so.

To be sure, there will be a section of folks who will say that worrying about the baker is useless sentimentality as modernization, free markets, and development have to wipe away what is inefficient and outdated. Implicit in this theory is the bias that what is dated is essentially not worthy stuff, unless it is an antique that can be packaged and auctioned to collectors.

Somehow I don’t think that I am alone in my sentimentality for the baker. Even commerce is playing on it. These days bakery chains are talking about the virtues of whole wheat breads, and oven fired breads, and fluffy breads. We had them when the traditional bakers were around, and we didn’t value them enough to preserve them.

The upshot is that free markets and competition cannot be counted on to meet our gastronomical, emotional, and community needs. Supermarkets will kill corner stores, large book chains will kill traditional small book stores, mechanized manufacturers will kill businesses where people work with their hands.

Some of these cornerstones of the past will however come back some ten years from now with a vengeance, this time positioned as boutique stores, designed and priced for the rich. The unassuming and functional corner bookstores or retail store will come back in a new avatar, with another owner, and a lot of snobbery and affectation that will drive off traditional customers.

Civil society has to protect what it values, whether it is the corner store, the local bakery, the vegetable cart, or the local vendor of victuals, by actively supporting these enterprises, buying from them. We are not doing them a favor, but keeping our sanity through this whirlwind of change.

Preserving small businesses has a lot to do with preserving our culture as well. Our culture is not only about owning expensive paintings and listening to music (these days more spectacle than participative). It is about the common relations, the institutions, the people that make up our life. The corner shop where one can stop for a bit of the local gossip, the baker who knows everyone around for mile, and other such notables where part of a community, of the fabric and culture of a society which is fast giving way to impersonal businesses.

Preserving traditional businesses also has to do with empowerment of the people who run these businesses. As the businesses close the self-employed join the ranks of the factory employed.

People also stop taking ownership of what they produce, and that reflects on quality. Once a year, the baker I spoke about used to gift his regulars with a cake stuffed with raisins and nuts. It was his creation, he was proud of it, and the kids loved it. It was not delivered with a large corporate logo in a fancy box, and there were no photo ops for the media. No, this gift reflected a man’s dedication to put in his best efforts to thank his fellowmen for their support.

It was about community, humanity. The baker was one of many who participated in a way of life that is not inexorably doomed to die away.