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Wall Street runs through small-town square

  • Story Highlights
  • Woes on Wall Street create anxiety for business owners in small Pennsylvania town
  • "People are just leery about spending their money," one owner says
  • Thrift store is one business flourishing on town square in Chambersburg
  • "It'll all come back," owner of new restaurant says
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By Bob Greene
CNN Contributor
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Award-winning writer Bob Greene is riding CNN's Election Express across the country in the final weeks before the election to tell stories about how the issues affect Americans.

The turmoil on Wall Street can be felt in the businesses around the town square in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.

ABOARD THE CNN ELECTION EXPRESS (CNN) -- As the sun comes up over the town square in this rural borough of 18,000 people, you could be excused for thinking, at least for a moment, that the American economy is at its robust peak.

The traffic running through downtown Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, jogs to the right as it passes the five-tiered Memorial Fountain, while the fountain's streams of water glisten like ropes of diamonds in the new light.

And that morning traffic is an endless succession of trucks and work vehicles bearing the names of companies and industrial concerns: Ganoe Paving. Edge Rubber. APR Plumbing and Heating Supply. Fisher Auto Parts. Cemco Construction.

The parade never stops. It looks like a promotional film for a nation boldly building -- a nation self-assuredly going to work.

Yet if you walk the streets of the square during these schizophrenic national days -- days when the economy has seemingly gone berserk, when nothing appears to make sense -- and if you enter the front doors of the businesses, you begin to understand how the glowing, nonsensical numbers dancing on Wall Street computer screens have landed with a thud in Chambersburg, and have brought with them icicles of fear, the kind that men and women who run small businesses can feel in their stomachs.

"Everyone I talk to feels it," says Tracy J. Helman, the manager of Printaway Inc., a local photocopying and commercial printing company. "People are just leery about spending their money. Businesses that might be reordering letterhead stationery are waiting until they run completely out instead. We're getting hit pretty hard."

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At KFB Jewelers, the co-owner, Reed Runk, says, "When the economy gets bad, people come in to get their jewelry repaired instead of buying. We do it for them, but of course that doesn't bring in the revenue that selling new jewelry does. And with the price of gold going up. ..."

No one seems to have confidence that either of the presidential candidates has the definitive answer. The evident current madness of the economy seems too big, a force that can't be contained.

Thus, at Twice Read Books and Comics, the co-owner, Bill Earley, speaks of faraway Lehman Brothers. "People here may not have thought much about Lehman Brothers before," he says, "but the way it all reaches us is that people decide they need food and gas, not this stuff we sell. They decide that maybe they don't need to come in and buy a book."

Even at the Money Saver Variety Store, the owner, M.I. Malik, says that his "rock bottom prices" are not enough to draw the crowds his store did as recently as a year ago.

"We've never seen it as slow," he says. "We're doing 45 percent less business than we did last year."

This is a town with a palpable sense of optimism and pride; no one wants to seem like he or she is complaining.

"We're going to make it in this downtown," says Andrew Grochowski, the owner of Lighten Up Chambersburg Inc., an electrical fixture company. "But people are just generally scared."

One business on the town square is doing as well as ever: the Four States Christian Mission Thrift Store. Here, you can buy a used lamp for $3; used drinking glasses for 10 cents apiece; a used men's dress shirt for a dollar; a used pair of baby's pajamas for $1.25. It's a shop of last resort.

"You can't get much more economical than here," says Bill Leach, a laborer working in a back room.

The news from Wall Street seems so distant, and at the same time so close. In front of a soon-to-be-opening Italian restaurant on the town square, I stand with the owner, Bob Orsa, and watch the morning traffic.

"We've been getting the restaurant ready for six months" he says. "Some time to open a new business, right?"


We look across the street at the old county courthouse, with its white clock tower.

"But I feel good," Orsa says. "It'll all come back. History shows us that, doesn't it? It always comes back."

All About National EconomyLehman Brothers Inc.

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