I grew up in a town called Kokomo. Unlike the Beach Boys song, the only “beach” was the public pool, unfortunately dubbed the “Pee-shore” instead of “Sea-shore” and the highlights of the city (in no particular order) were the steer, the stump, the stoplights, the automotive factories, and the surrounding cornfields. At around 45 thousand residents, it qualified as both big (compared to the surrounding towns in north-central Indiana) and small (on any national or global scale). As a young child, it felt big, particularly compared to the even smaller town called Peru, where both of my grandparents lived.
Peru in the 1980’s was around 14 thousand residents, but more than just the number, it was a town where everyone seemed to know everyone. No matter where we went, it seemed that either someone owning the store or restaurant not only knew my grandparents, but also knew (or could extrapolate) whose child I was, and could usually add an entertaining story of some escapade of one of my parents.
I loved to visit all of my grandparents, but especially my maternal grandmother, as she appeared so glamorous and important to me. She ran a real estate agency together with a partner, and was well known in one of the main restaurants in town, the Siding, as well as at the office supply store, the hair salon, the candy store, and everywhere else we went. Spending summer days with her meant filing MLS listings in binders, searching through them for houses for clients, our business women lunch at the Siding (in a refurbished train car!), and usually a trip to the office supply store where I could pick out Mr Sketch scented markers, or some other such treat as a reward for my “help”.
Memories of the friendly encounters in the stores and restaurants and the feeling of belonging stay fondly with me today, even though I have mostly chosen to live in larger anonymous cities or suburbs throughout the world. For many years, I still enjoyed dropping into the Siding, where the owner and many of the waitstaff still recognized me and usually could give me news on my various relatives who they saw more often than I did.
As I have grown older, I have been saddened to see the decline of Peru, and many other small towns across the US Midwest, as shopping moved from the small family-owned stores in Peru to the large anonymous chains in Kokomo. Jobs also moved out to the bigger cities, the once thriving Main Street and Broadway in Peru became emptier and darker and the city population dropped steadily from the 1980’s with a rapid decline of 12% in the last census in 2010. Recently, even the Siding closed, marking for me both the end of an era and making the economic decline of small towns quite personal.
On the other side of the Atlantic, I have been lucky enough to find another small town that in many ways has taken similar hold on my heart as Peru: Lysekil, Sweden. Lysekil is my husband’s hometown, a fishing and tourist village on Sweden’s breathtaking west coast. Located on the tip of a rocky, red granite peninsula, in the midst of a starkly beautiful archipelago, Lysekil is quite similar in size to Peru, and has many of the charming small-town qualities that Peru offered with locally owned stores, restaurants, and bakeries.
From my first visit in 2003 with my sister and nephew at the recommendation of the purchasing manager I worked with at SAAB (who unbeknownst to me at the time, would later become my husband), I felt at home. The casual nautical themed restaurant with a view of Gullmarsfjord offered both good food and an atmosphere I fit right into. My sister and I remarked that we could see ourselves hanging out there, in many ways like the Siding.
After my husband and I came together, I also came together with Lysekil. First in our visits with our sailboat, through our wedding that took place at sea outside of Lysekil and the celebration after at the society house, and visits to my mother-in-law, I began to be welcomed into the town. Through my husband, people began to know and recognize me. It is fantastic to take an early morning walk or run along the sea, stop by the small grocery store, then finish up at the Björsells bakery with fresh artisan bread, and, all along the way, pass people to greet and exchange pleasantries with both people on the streets and in the stores.
Summer, especially dry and warm summers, provide an experience almost unmatched in the world. Taking a boat out to a small island, anchoring, grilling out, and swimming in the crisp crystal clear water is refreshing and invigorating, and probably one of the most simple but enjoyable experiences that I know. Adding a mask and snorkel, or full diving gear, opens up the wildlife under the sea. Taking a sail, or a sea kayak tour, provides tranquility and peace. And for those who prefer, there is also a nightlife, concerts, and 1950’s American car cruising (on Midsummer weekend). As for me, my favorite nightlife is a sunset hike through the nature reserve, Stångehuvud, followed by grilling out on our patio.
Like Peru, Lysekil is facing challenges to survive as a small town. As a tourist destination, the problems are different. In Peru, housing prices are going down and people are moving out completely. In Lysekil, housing prices are going up, as wealthy foreigners and large city dwellers are buying vacation homes, but the year round jobs are becoming fewer and fewer, and the ability of the local stores and restaurants to maintain year-round services is rapidly declining.
One only has to look across the water from Lysekil, to Fiskebäckskil to see a potential grim future for Lysekil. Quaint, charming and fully lively in the height of summer, with the Norwegians and the “08’s” (as Stockholmers are called, after the city phone code) arriving in their Porsche SUV’s and Teslas. Summer houses are decorated casually, but expensively. Tanned children skip along the cobblestone paths. Teenagers sun themselves on the docks, and executives captain their Nimbus motorboats while reading emails on their smartphones. Charming and tasty restaurants often have long queues, as people take a short stroll from their summerhouse or hop off their boats.
November brings a sharp contrast, with the local restaurants mostly closed, opening only for holidays and/or weekends. A few tough souls are seen out in warm parkas, but they are mostly retirement age or older. The cobblestone paths pass empty house after empty house, and one can drive the whole length of the village without seeing another car. The hotel and conference center, together with the small grocery store, bring the only glimpse of life and lights in an otherwise abandoned village.
In November, Lysekil’s life still has a pulse, although much more subdued than the height of summer. Saturdays are still vital and energetic times in the village, as the residents come to the main street for shopping and a treat at the bakery or café. Long-time residents mourn that Saturdays are nowhere what they used to be, when the town was full of residents year-round, who lived, ate, shopped, and visited in the town.
As much as I love a Saturday there, I worry about how it will be in 20 years, when we retire there. Will there still be fresh baked bread to buy? Small stores to visit and chat with the owners? Restaurants and cafés to visit in the dark of winter, when the summer people are long gone, and cabin fever has set in? Clothing stores to meet both needs and whims? A book store with both the latest books and all the supplies that an office supply lover could need?
As part of my own reflection and mission, also in light of understanding the impact that the loss of small town life and economies has had on world stability, I will be focusing more of my talents and investments to be a part of the future of my little town, Lysekil. Maybe if I am successful there, I can invest in Peru next. :-)