Column | Sue Carlton

Where hope and comfort are $1

So the calendar has flipped, and here we are in 2009, a number we will get wrong for weeks — not that we aren't ready for it, ready to move on, ready for change.

We are in strange times, in a world both falling apart and shoring itself up. At least, you hope that's how things will balance out.

You suspect your new president will use the word "challenge" a lot, less in a rhetorical "This is going to be real bad" way, and more like "We really will get through this." You hope.

My favorite Target store had its sappy heart-shaped Valentine's Day merchandise out even as shoppers came to pillage after-Christmas sales and return rejected gifts. But this year, for some reason, the speediness of the next-holiday come-on felt less cynical and mercenary and more like a bid for economic survival.

Because every day comes news: bankruptcy for the toy store whose aisles you wandered as a kid, bankruptcy for the chain where you bought your first car stereo, out-of-business signs plastered on the home store that sold you sheets for your dorm room.

So, a question: Will 2009 be the year of the dollar store?

And I do mean dollar store, not those dollar-ish, dollar-like stores where things cost somewhere around a buck, generally cheap but not necessarily one actual dollar.

At a real dollar store, everything's a dollar, period. You need not ask. This is a comfort, a certainty in an uncertain world.

An interesting note: Dollar Tree, which calls itself "the nation's largest discount variety store chain selling everything for $1 or less," reported a third-quarter sales increase of 11.6 percent in November.

Back when my nieces and nephews were very young and clueless, and how I miss those days, back when they could speak without texting and listen without wires hanging from their ears, you could take them to a dollar store. There, you could tell them that, because they had been good, they could pick out one of anything they wanted. In the whole store.

And they would look up at all those toys and books and crafts and crayons and say wonderingly, "Anything?" Of course they figured out this scam in no time, but for a little while there, it was magic.

I found myself in a dollar store the other day, one tucked between a nail salon where bored-looking employees stared out the window for customers, a big-box department store advertising sales more improbable by the day (BUY ONE GET 10 FREE! coming soon), a shuttered grocery and a kids-eat-free pizza parlor.

Savvy shoppers, even those lucky enough to have long had the option of frivolous spending, have also long known the secrets of the dollar store: dollar gift bags, greeting cards, Halloween candy, candles, picture frames, slightly off-brand cleaners, dishes, hardcover books.

Over Christmas I found spun-glass ornaments, the origin of which no one would have known had I been able to resist telling them. Or maybe they regularly cruise those aisles themselves.

When I was ready to leave, I found myself standing in line to pay behind a woman with expensively highlighted hair dipping into her Coach bag for her alligator wallet, and in front of an older couple literally counting out their pennies from a change purse. We were in it together for the new year, in a place of hope and comfort and dollar dish towels.

Where hope and comfort are $1 01/01/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 3, 2009 2:51pm]

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