(News from a slightly altered universe.)There is a cultural change building across the nation. It began before the recession, which has amplified the problem. I speak of the demise of the small, independent name seller — the mom-and-pop establishments that were the first places my generation was exposed to exotic foreign names such as André, Coquette and Arnulfo.
Big-box business behemoths like Names & Noble, Doublename and Waldennames are replacing small stores with handles such as Name Passage, Name Depot and A Clean Well-lighted Place for Names.
Two competitive tsunamis have swamped small namestores — either one of which would have knocked out a less robust industry: the rise of the large, chain namestores and the advent of the Internet.
Whether or not you agree that helping independent namestores is less worthy than, say, propping up failing automobile manufacturers, the issue is clear: many small businesses are suffering from the financial crisis and the lack of available credit.
Why are there namestores? Some people name their children on their own to save a few bucks. They use family last names as first names or, what’s more dangerous, make up names from scratch, which runs the risk of branding a child for life with a moniker such as Smedley, Piglet or Small Fry.
I mention people making up names for the sake of completeness. As we all know, Marin County outlawed self-naming in 1967, about the time the Grateful Dead first rose to prominence — though historians disagree whether the two events were connected.
Big stores and Internet name sites offer quicker delivery and lower prices — but at what cost? If you want one of the top 10 names for the past decade, there is no waiting at the Big Boxes. The issue is What happens to the small name generators, ones without the big publicity budget and whom we are unlikely to run into except in a small establishment? These are the people who came up with names like Trent and Ethan and Britney, names that might have never caught on if they hadn’t first received exposure in a smaller venue.
Name stores and nicknames: Many namestores have served several generations of the same family. Young parents went there to buy names for their about-to-be-borns, grandparents shopped for funny-yet-endearing names for their grandchildren to call them. As young kids, we went, always in a group, to browse for grandparent nicknames on our own, names such as Granna, Nona and MeMaw. Not having any money, we made up our own names for our grandparents like YaYo, MamaMia and Gummy. My daughter named her grandmother Gay, before that word meant anything else. See the trouble scrimping on names can cause?
In addition, there were wannabe gangsters looking for macho-sounding monikers such as Biff and Mugsy, small-business owners looking for brand names, ideally ones that came early in the alphabet for better Yellow Pages placement. That is why all the body shops start with “A” up to “AAAA.” Acme was a popular choice until the Wile E. Coyote cartoons became popular.
In the war between independent namestores and the Wal-Marts of the world, small namestores have tried to diversify their appeal by adding literary entertainment and writing courses in an effort to morph into more than a place that just sells names.
Thinking of naming your child “John”? Last week, patrons of Name Passage had an opportunity to meet four different Johns (as well as three Marys and six Roberts). All different shapes and sizes give you an in-depth sense of what the name really signifies. “In our business, we call it a 3-D Name Exposure Experience,” said the renowned name critic for the L.A. Times, Apostrophe Jones.
Other small stores offer Name Swaps and Try-Ons, an opportunity to meet and exchange names. In an intimate setting, you have a chance to try on a name for a few hours and decide if it fits you before you make a financial commitment.
There are also namestores that specialize in unusual names for unusual situations: foreign, arty, one-time-only party names, online avatars, nerdy nicknames, trendy titles, etc.
Try doing that at Names Without Borders.
This Week's Ponder: How might the world be different today if Adolf’s mother had named him Andy?