business, city life, opinion

VCU announced today that a new ‘Walmart on Campus,’ the shopping giant’s relatively new college store concept, is coming to the university. The 4,100-square-foot store will be located at 912 West Grace Street on the lower level of a new academic building. It’s Walmart’s fifth ‘mini’ on-campus concept and is slated to open late this year or in early 2015 at latest.

At first glance, the news kind of made my stomach turn. I’m admittedly not a big fan of Walmart or what the company stands for, like some of their employment practices, the way the company has been known to strong-arm its way into communities, and the resulting loss of locally owned stores that sometimes occurs when a new store opens.

I initially remarked on Twitter that I didn’t think a Walmart fit the ‘vibe’ of that area of campus:

Despite my reservations about the retail behemoth coming to campus, I was offered a few counter points in reply:

So while I may not be thrilled about a Walmart coming to VCU, it does prove two points:

1. VCU’s “vibe” that I spoke of has changed and evolved rather quickly.

It’s amazing how much VCU has changed and grown in the short time since I went there. The school’s been put on the national map (and really, helped solidified Richmond’s place on the map as well) following the success of the VCU Men’s Basketball program and Shaka Smart’s leadership. The VCUArts program is rated the best in the nation, too. We’re no longer some vague, hipster-y school.

Sure, there were chains on campus before, right down the street from the Grace Street development, like Barnes & Noble, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, Qdoba Mexican Grill, and Extreme Pizza, to name a few. But since then, even more have popped up.

On West Grace Street, where the new Walmart is coming, the surrounding blocks are barely recognizable compared to a few years prior:

grace-street-transformation

2. National interest in Richmond is on the uptick.

Just as VCU has gained a fair amount of national exposure over the past few years, so has Richmond. We were named ‘Best River Town in America‘ by Outside Magazine. Another study ranked RVA as the ‘Happiest Metropolitan Area’ in the United States.’ Richmond’s dining and brewing scenes have exploded, and chefs and entrepreneurs continue to raise the bar, many receiving national attention.

Chains that once never even considered the Richmond market are either testing the waters with their first RVA locations–Wegman’s, for example–or expanding their presence–such as Whole Foods Market.

The bottom line is, in my opinion, it’s an exciting time to live in Richmond. The city continues to thrive, grow and change. Change is not always easy though, especially for Richmonders (remember the great #Ukropalypse of 2009?).

While I’m not particularly excited for a Walmart at VCU personally, there will be many positive benefits for nearby students and residents alike looking to take advantage of a discount retailer, of which there are very few in the immediate area. Plus, it’s a small store as far as Walmarts go.

Finally, the fact that a corporation the size of Walmart sees a downtown store as a viable location is good news in general for the city–a sign of just how much this ‘big small town’ has grown up, perhaps.

city life, history, life

Next week will mark a year since I moved to Scott’s Addition (and probably about the same amount of time since I last blogged, to be honest). Moving here, into a recently renovated warehouse, was a stark contrast to life in Short Pump, but I couldn’t be happier to have happened upon this neighborhood.

I wasn’t really even considering Scott’s Addition when it came time for the apartment search, mainly because I didn’t know much about it or think there was much in the way of housing. But thanks to my roommate Lizzy and a Craigslist post, we found a cool place in a great up-and-coming neighborhood.

To me, Scott’s Addition is full of grit, brimming with character and ripe for re-development, much of which is already taking place or in the works.

But it doesn’t necessarily exude the same image nearby neighborhoods do–yet. Unlike the nearby Fan area, full of stately, established old homes and tree-lined streets, Scott’s Addition is industrial and scrappy. The buildings themselves, built anywhere between the late 1920s and 1950s (my particular building was constructed in 1944, according to city records), don’t all all have the same inviting character of an old home. What they do have, though, is just as much character.

Just in the past year, I’ve seen dramatic transformations in my neighborhood. Blighted warehouses have been turned into creative apartments, blending old and new (much like mine). and neglected stockrooms have been transformed into thriving breweries (Isley Brewing Co. and Ardent Craft Ales both opened within the past year).

Just up the street from me on Summit Avenue, in fact, a business corridor has come together with the addition of Lamplighter Roasting Company, Health Warrior, Isley Brewing Co., Richmond Bicycle Studio and Studio Center Total Production. There’s even an Urban Farmhouse Market & Cafe on the way, slated to open in September.

Pair these recent additions with hole-in-the-wall gourmet diner duo Lunch and Supper, Fat Dragon Chinese Kitchen and Bar and the ever-enduring Dairy Bar (in business since 1946), and you’ve got a nice little neighborhood vibe going on, not to mention it’s all just a short walk or bike ride away from the amenities and establishments of The Fan.

I took a walk around the neighborhood to document the state of the neighborhood and its progress last weekend. Here are some of the sights, in monochromatic glory.

IMG_0395 IMG_0397 IMG_0398 IMG_0406 IMG_0409 IMG_0414 IMG_0423 IMG_0424 IMG_0426 IMG_0428 IMG_0429 IMG_0430 IMG_0431 IMG_0433

Richmond Times-Dispatch

Richmond history and weather are two items up there on my list of very favorite things, so it should come as no surprise that a blurb in the Richmond Times-Dispatch with a picture of damage from an F3 tornado that ripped through Downtown Richmond on June 13, 1951 piqued my interest.

I remember my late grandma telling me a story once of a terrible windstorm or tornado coming through Byrd Park where she lived a long, long time ago, and I figured out this must have been it based on the map of the twister (below) that had it crossing the James River just south of Byrd Park, and then ripping into The Fan and going straight down Cary Street between Meadow Street and turning towards Monroe Park near the VCU campus.

VCU Library Archives

The Shockoe Examiner

This was an F3 tornado, which by definition packs winds between 158 and 206 miles per hour. In its wake, the tornado injured dozens of people, destroyed 100 homes, and damaged more than 1,000 houses and buildings in Richmond, including ripping the bell tower off Grace & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church (seen below), the top of which was never rebuilt.

I don’t know for sure, but there’s a large swath of largely later 20th century construction and empty lots along Cary Street between Meadow and Randolph Streets to this day, while the rest of The Fan and Midtown remains intact. Some areas (especially south of 195) were demolished for the construction of the Downtown Expressway, but it makes me wonder if a lot of the destroyed or heavily damaged homes were just never rebuilt.

Below is an aerial view of the tornado’s destruction, taken facing west, over the Randolph neighborhood. To the upper left, you’ll notice Byrd Park’s Swan and Shields Lakes.

Library of Virginia Archives

Well, it’s a bittersweet day for me. After eight years, I’ve hung up my hat as the unofficial “Mayor of Short Pump,” the title (jab, perhaps?) jokingly given to me over the years as one of the most vocal advocates of the Far West End of Richmond.

I started DowntownShortPump.com in 2004 in high school when no other online outlet for news specifically for Short Pump existed, after driving by the “Downtown Short Pump” signage in front of the Regal Cinemas. Under the title, etched in stone, was the domain name, originally used to promote the shopping center. After visiting the website and learning it had expired, I purchased the domain name for $8.00.

Now to understand the name, you have to go way back to the time when Short Pump was a sleepy, quiet outpost in the middle of nowhere. The long forgotten Henley’s Store, which stood right about where Trader Joe’s is now, donned a sign that said “Downtown Short Pump,” ironically poking fun at the fact that, well, that was about all there was out there. And it just about was.

That’s the Short Pump I grew up in. Back when it had soul. Fast forward to 2012, and there’s nary a point of reference to even begin to point out what stood where in the Short Pump of olden days. All that remains is the name.

Downtown Short Pump, then, was both an accurate and ironic name for my website. What was once a rural crossroads joking about being a city had actually become one, in a suburban sprawl kind of way. And that suburban city, I thought, needed an exclusive news source.

That being said, I never dreamed my little project with a couple visitors a day would end up netting 30,000 visitors per month or gaining the traction that it did. It’s funny to me that I sort of became the face or persona (or “Mayor”) of Short Pump to some people. I guess it was just because no one else was doing it. Either way, it ended up becoming the biggest project of my life thus far.

Unlike a lot of people who saw Short Pump as a suburban jungle of chain stores and concrete, which in many ways it had become, I aimed to utilize Downtown Short Pump to show that the community still had a pulse. Short Pump may have had an almost full-body transplant, but local businesses restaurants still thrived among the “big box” stores. I tried to demonstrate this as often as possible, and often times became the butt of jokes for it. Which I not only didn’t mind, but I quite often got a kick out of it and laughed right along.

I sold the site last December, but stayed on as Editor & Publisher. As the new owners prepare to take DTSP in a new direction, I think this was the right time to part ways. I can’t begin to express how grateful I am to have had the opportunities I did because of the site, and the connections I made. Not just business connections, but the friendships I formed and the people I met city-wide.

I didn’t just run a website. It was literally part of me. After spending a third of my life running Downtown Short Pump, it was very strange, almost surreal, driving down West Broad Street and seeing a sign for a new business opening. The instinct to make a mental note on something like that and put together a writeup for the website is so ingrained into me that it just comes as second nature. It’s going to take a while to remind myself that’s not what I do anymore.

Thanks for everyone’s support over the years–for believing in me, especially in the beginning, when I sometimes didn’t believe in myself. And for all the advice and support as I started out (extra special thank-yous go out to NBC12′s Ryan Nobles and Andy Jenks, who in some ways were my mentors and provided phenomenal advice).

I’ve grown and changed in ways that never would have been otherwise possible, and I would be nowhere if it weren’t for those that stood by me for the past eight years, including the loyal readers.

So while moving on may be bittersweet, and I may even be (gasp!) moving to The Fan soon, stepping back from something I’ve been used to doing has really given me some good perspective and clarity. I think I’ll be able to focus more on some big projects and ideas I’ve had in mind for some time. But not before I take the next couple months to reflect and really consider what it is I want to do next with my life, get myself and my life in order, and prepare to embark on my next adventure. I have some big ideas to make an impact on the community again, and this time, I’m going Richmond-wide, if not further.

Stay tuned, and again, thank you from the bottom of my heart to everyone who’s supported me.

I turned 24 on Sunday, and before you scoff at a 24-year-old who you think is about to claim that he knows a thing or two about life at some ripe old age, please know that’s not what I’m doing here. Not in the least. What I want to do is provide my perspective on life thus far, what I’ve learned, and what I currently believe, keeping in mind the fact that I have so much more yet to discover about myself and my life. Hopefully this will serve as a sort of time capsule I can look back on later as well.

  1. Nothing worth doing is ever easy, and quite often, doing the right thing can be the most difficult route. It’s sometimes tough to know which road to take, but as long as your moral compass is always pointing north, you’ll be guided to the end point eventually.
  2. People don’t listen to advice because, though they might say they do, they don’t actually want your advice, they want you to tell them what they want to hear–something that’s favorable to the outcome of the situation they’re seeking advice on.
  3. People that make fun of, bully, or belittle others do so to fill a void in their lives, whether that void is their own insecurities, skeletons in their closets, or general unhappiness with their current situations.
  4. Those that are too nice to others often times end up being doormats, whether others intentionally or subconsciously take advantage of their level of kindness and willingness to help that  goes above and beyond what most people are willing to do.
  5. If you like someone, never be afraid to tell them how you feel, whether it ends up coming back to bite you or not. If the feelings aren’t returned, it sucks, but it’s not the end of the world. And besides–things are only awkward when you make them awkward.
  6. Fear doesn’t exist outside of our own minds, but it’s a powerful force that can hold us back from our true potential and should (and can) be controlled. You can either have faith or fear in your heart, but there’s not room for both. Which do you choose?
  7. Surround yourself with people that lift you up, encourage you, and genuinely care for you. Toxic people might make for great “good time” friends, but you’ll quickly discover your true friends in times of personal crisis.
  8. Most people are genuinely good at heart, but so many put on façades to appeal to others, fit in, or other reasons that end up taking them off the straight and narrow path in life and cause them to treat others badly as a result. That being said, those same people usually tend to act totally different in a group of people versus one-on-one. It all goes back to insecurities.
  9. Nothing constructive usually happens on the comment sections of websites, especially news sites. People will do and say some awful things when their faces and identities are hidden from view. Would most of these things be said to anyone in person? Probably not. But behind a computer screen, anything goes, apparently.
  10. Always stand up for what you believe in, no matter how much it goes against the grain. Going back to what I said earlier, what’s right isn’t always popular, but what’s popular isn’t always right. Stick to your values–what makes you, you. In the words of the great Thomas Jefferson, “In matters of style, swim with the current. In matters of principle, stand like a rock.”
  11. There is nothing more important, and in most cases, anyone that will ever love you more, than your family. Hold onto them and cherish them more than anything else if you have close family in your life. Everyone and everything else comes second.
  12. Respect your elders, but don’t ever be afraid to question anyone above you or in an authoritative position in general. Don’t always go along with something just because you feel like you’re supposed to be subordinate to someone else, especially if it just doesn’t feel right.
  13. Don’t gossip about people or tell anyone besides a close friend anything that you don’t want getting around. Because everything gets around and comes right back to you eventually.
  14. Do something every day that challenges you and puts you just outside of your comfort zone. There’s no reward without risk on some level.
  15. There are countless analogies between conducting business and dating. Many of the same principles apply, but in totally different capacities. But on a semi-related note, it’s best to not mix the two.
  16. You’re never going to make everyone happy or every person like you, no matter what you do. You’ll drive yourself crazy trying. Plus, the way I see it is that if you’re going to do anything great with your life, you’re going to make a few enemies along the way. It’s just the way it goes.
  17. Never rely on anyone else to fulfill you or make you happy. Happiness comes from within, from finding (and being) yourself, and just being okay with who you are as a person. You need to be happy with yourself before you try to be with anyone else in any relationship capacity, otherwise you’ll just end up in a hollowed out relationship and when the cards fall, it’ll most likely end badly. Too many people I’ve known over the years have made it seemingly their mission in life to find a significant other to date/marry/be with, and most all of them end up so focused on the destination that they don’t enjoy the ride. And isn’t that was life is really all about?
  18. Some of the most fun things I’ve done in my life have been completely unplanned, unscheduled, and totally spontaneous. I hate making plans for the most part, and most big events that are planned, especially on holidays, such as New Year’s Eve, end up having these big expectations attached to them that end up leaving you disappointed in the end. Sometimes you just have to roll with things and take them as they come.
  19. Life really is 10% about what happens and 90% what you do about it. Your reactions, your ability to learn from negative experiences, and your attitude about everything is what makes all the difference in the world.
  20. You get out of life what you put into it. A simple act of kindness goes a long way and just might brighten someone’s day. Donating your time to a charitable cause or giving back to someone or something that’s added value to your life will make you feel richer in your heart than any amount of money ever could.
  21. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is, no matter what. You get what you pay for. As the old saying goes, “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.”
  22. There are very few problems a long walk, great music, or a hearty laugh can’t at least make better, if not fix altogether.
  23. Life is way too short to hold grudges or not forgive people. There will always be folks who say and do terrible things to you, but carrying that baggage down life’s road with you will only weigh down your spirit and diminish your potential. It’s never easy to forgive someone, and doing so doesn’t justify their behavior. But it’s the right thing to do and necessary to fully heal and/or move on.
  24. Finally, take the time to get to know yourself on the deepest level possible. Discover your passions and what makes you tick–what makes you get up on a Monday morning, full of energy and ready to take on the day. Once you find that, you’ll live a more purposeful and meaningful life, and if you put some energy into it, you can probably make a living doing something you love. And if you can accomplish that, you’ll never truly work another day in your life, but rather make an income doing something that makes you incredibly happy.

Let me start off by saying that I think I’m a pretty charitable person. I participate in or fundraise for no less than probably ten different organizations from across the political spectrum (and those that have no political affiliation at all). I do it because I wholeheartedly feel that we’re all in this thing together–life, that is–and that we should all do our best to give back to those in need and lend a hand to those that need it when we’re able. I love finding opportunities to help those who are less fortunate or raise money for a worthy cause I believe in.

Lately though, a couple of things I’ve participated in have resulted in more than just a few questions (a couple of them may be better filed under “interrogation”) from those that I know. I’ve heard things like “I’m surprised to see you at [event], I thought you’re a Republican,” or “I can’t believe you’re going to [presidential candidate]‘s breakfast, do you really support him?”

First off, I really don’t share my political or religious views that often. Especially online, over social media, etcetera. I have my views and to me they’re both a private matter and not something that I feel like I should have to debate with anyone. I do from time, but I just don’t feel like any good has ever come out of a conversation like that. Part of that might be because I’m someone that generally avoids conflict like the plague, but it’s also because such conversations end up being so polarizing.

I have friends that I can have a mutually respectful conversation about things of this nature with, but by and large I feel like it ends up being a death match. A lot of times when I’ve been in the midst of a discussion like this, the other person will end up arguing until they’re blue in the face, out of breath, or have gotten angry enough that they seem worried they’re causing irreparable harm to our friendship.

It seems as though nowadays some people have to have to tell everyone else why their opinion is wrong and their own is unquestionably right. This may come as news to some people, but an opinion can’t be either right or wrong. It’s an opinion. But I’m getting slightly off topic.

Having run a news website for the past eight years, I’ve tried to be completely unbiased in my reporting and have covered and written about things that go against my own views even. But it’s that very attempt that’s gotten me the most critical comments at times. The one thing I’ve noticed the most is that the people who claim to be the most tolerant are often times only that way until you show that you’re against their views, and then end up being sometimes the most intolerant. And that has nothing to do with party affiliation, I’ve seen it from both sides.

All this being said, if you must know, I consider myself independent. There. I have a variety of views across the board on a myriad of issues (both social and fiscal) and don’t completely line up with the views of either party enough to consider myself on one side of the fence or the other. Now I know there’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos (also a book title), but I vehemently oppose certain things going on in both the Republican and Democratic parties.

Here’s how I can best sum up how I feel: I think the Republicans should get out of our bedrooms and the Democrats should get out of our wallets, and I believe in the ideals of our Constitution and our Founding Fathers’ vision for our great nation, which I feel we’re straying from more and more. I’d say I respect the ideologies and political thinking of Thomas Jefferson more than anyone else. And there you have it. Oh and I’m a Christian who believes that God is love, and love conquers all. There. Any further questions? Now back to your regularly scheduled, vitrol-infused, heated Facebook comment threads, already in progress.

But seriously, I think we all (I’m not excluded from this, either) need to think twice before both assuming the political affiliations of those around us, as well as be a little more respectful of viewpoints that differ from our own. Because like I said in the beginning, we’re all in this together (cue the slightly cheesy Ben Lee song from that TV commercial) and plus, how boring would the world be if we all had the same opinions on the issues? I doubt it’d be as utopian as you might think.

business, life, rants

Life sure is funny sometimes. It almost makes you wonder if God himself has a sense of humor. When you look back on certain things, you realize it’s sometimes the smallest of decisions that end up taking you down certain paths. And it sure makes for a great story. I want to share one of those with you today.

It was mid September of 2009. I had just quit my job at a local computer company, where I managed a help desk at the University of Richmond and traveled around the state installing and servicing computers and printers for mainly educational clients to spend more time growing my web design and branding business and my news site, Downtown Short Pump. While working out of my favorite local coffee shop, I saw a tweet from a woman I’d never met before, desperately asking for help with her computer from someone nearby. Being that I was next door and had done this for a living, I decided to pop in to this woman’s store, By Invitation Only. It was there that I met Monica Horsley.

I spent an hour or so attempting to resolve Monica’s computer issues that day. Well it turns out there was more than one issue that needed taking care of. The next day, Monica asked me to come back and take a look at a few other things. The third day, she invited me out for drinks with her and the rest of the staff after work. We all really got along. She invited me back to do a few more things the next day.

Before I knew it, I got my first paycheck. I was officially working at a invitation and stationery store. I began helping with the graphic design and printing of everything from childrens’ birthday parties and graduations to rehearsal dinners and weddings. I even familiarized myself with the more than eighty vendor invitation books we had and began helping customers select wedding and other invitations when they came in the store.

Once the former manager quit and a couple others left for one reason or another, it was pretty much just Monica and I holding down the fort for a few months. I was doing so many things that, though I didn’t, I felt like I owned a part of the store. I had that kind of dedication to its continued success.

I stayed for just over two years at a job I was never really hired for– I just never left! But two weeks ago, I put in my resignation after accepting my new job at Loving Consulting. My last day was February 29, 2012.

It was a fun ride. Getting to work in a fast-paced retail environment with a clientele that expected nothing less than perfection definitely sharpened my skills physically, mentally, and socially. I was kept on my toes at all times. It had its ups and downs, but overall, I’m thankful for the experiences that helped mold and shape me that I otherwise wouldn’t have had if I had stayed at the coffee shop that day in 2009.

A lot of the people I met through Monica (one of the most connected people I’ve ever met) helped me to accomplish a lot for my business and connect the dots between myself and those that they knew to do the same.

If you asked me two years ago if I’d ever either work in or get to know anything about the bridal industry, I would have looked at you and laughed. But I now know it inside and out, and I’m better off for it. And I never thought I’d be sitting here typing that.

What I’ve learned is that little, seemingly insignificant decisions can end up making the most impact in your life. If I had continued to sit in that coffee shop and not respond to that tweet asking for help, what path would I have taken? I have a feeling I wouldn’t have expanded my horizons the way I have or even ultimately made the decision to sell my website (and accept a position doing something I love while still getting to run my website), which ended up being one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

It makes me wonder how many other small decisions I’ve made, even subconscious ones, that have lead me to where I am now. I guess John Lennon was right. Life’s what happens while you’re busy making other plans.

So, as I said once before, life sure is funny.

2011 was a great year. I met so many new people, had a lot of great new experiences and continued to grow my business. I took on some major new clients under RVA MediaWorks and had a record year on Downtown Short Pump. These are all great things, because all healthy things grow. And as we flip the calendar to 2012, it’s time to take the next step in that growth.

I started Downtown Short Pump back in high school after visiting the website on the Downtown Short Pump sign in front of Regal Cinemas and Barnes and Noble. The name of the shopping complex was not new, but perhaps ironic. Borrowed from the old Henley Store, a two story general store at the corner of Broad and Three Chopt, the Downtown Short Pump sign adorning the front of the building was the butt of all jokes back when Short Pump was a rural outpost.

Today, the name is pretty fitting of the bustling suburban “edge city” that Short Pump has become. The Downtown Short Pump shopping complex had the domain name “www.downtownshortpump.com” etched into the stone of their sign, to promote the new center. By chance, I visited it one day in 2004 and noticed it had expired. I grabbed it for $8.

I then started posting happenings in the community, news I had heard or things I saw. Little did I know that this little one-pager would turn into a full-fledged website that welcomed just under 325,000 visitors in 2011– a fact of which I am very proud, but also very humbled by.

I can’t even begin to list all of the opportunities I’ve had and the people I’ve met all around Richmond through the growth of Downtown Short Pump. It’s been an amazing journey. And as of today, I announce my plan to take everything to the next level.

I’ve sold Downtown Short Pump to James Loving of Loving Consulting (who I’ve worked with very extensively in the past through the company’s highly successful Far West End networking group The Loving Collective), with whom I’ve taken a job as Director of New Media and Image Consultant. I’ll remain Editor & Publisher of Downtown Short Pump under the company’s new online media division, Break Point Media Group. Working for the company that acquired DTSP will allow me to continue to do what I love and hopefully expand this vision around Richmond, beginning with our sister site, Midlothian RVA, which will be launching soon.

I’ll also be helping with web design, copywriting, social media, and graphic design campaigns, plus contributing to other branding strategies for Loving Consulting’s clients.

I’m incredibly excited about what 2012 will bring, and I thank everyone who’s supported me and my business as a whole over the years. I’m not going anywhere, just changing roles, and I look forward to working with you and your businesses as I expand upon what I’ve built with Downtown Short Pump into other areas– both role-wise and geographically!

My photo of the line at Urban Outfitters that made it onto Mashable.

I’ve always hated shopping. Absolutely loathe it. I still have nightmares about being dragged through the JCPenney as a small child all Saturday at Regency Square. The few times I’ve been out doing it for more than a couple hours (which has usually been as the mercy of a bargain-hungry female companion), I’ve practically been able to feel my soul slowly departing my increasingly lifeless body. Jokes aside though, the one day I set this all aside has always been Black Friday. Something about that day has always made me set those feelings aside.

Whether it’s the adrenaline of fighting the crowds for merchandise or just being in the midst of chaos and enjoying some five-star people watching, I can’t be sure. But I’ve always been all about it, albeit just a day out of the year.

For years, the concept has been simple: Get to bed early and wake up around 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. and drive around Short Pump, snap some photos for my website and buy some stuff that I probably would have anyway and get a deep discount on it. Perfect.

But, alas, this year all of the big box retailers apparently had a secret roundtable meeting in which they decided that they were going to opening at midnight (and of course Walmart, in its typical “let’s one-up them all” style, decided to open at 10:00 p.m. Thanksgiving night). Workers required to leave family celebrations early in some cases (over 200,000 Target employees signed a petition against the early opening), which I can’t say I agree with.

Still, I decided to take my sister out for our annual tradition, at midnight. You know, because I love fighting crowds before the tryptophan has had time to wear off my sister asked me to take her.

So we rolled out of the house at 10:30 p.m. for what my sister claimed was an 11:00 p.m. opening of Urban Outfitters, the slightly out-of-place hipster retailer that happens to be in the heart of Prepville USA, beautiful Downtown Short Pump.

We were some of the first in line because, well, the store opened at midnight, not 11:00. So once I swallowed this wonderful news, we enjoyed the picturesque scene of two 12-year-olds smoking in front of us in line and another kid that wasn’t much older brown bagging it. Classy.

Line at Short Pump Town Center from second floor.

Anyway, so once the doors opened, these kids practically trampled one another, so they only let a few people in at a time and cut all the lights off in the store so no one could see anything. The logic of anything going on at this store was fleeting.

So having lost my sister at this point in the sea of insane teens practically killing one another over cheap clothes, I opted to hang out outside the store by the fire pit and think warm thoughts until she came out an hour later… literally.

Next it was on to Target, where the line of people had wrapped around the building an hour earlier, and adjacent Best Buy, which almost circled the building a time and a half. What these people were lined up for is beyond me, considering there was no hot item or toy this year to speak of. Most people coming out had TVs if I could find any one theme or pattern.

Once we actually got into Target (the outrageous line was gone at this point), it was worthless to even buy anything that was on sale, considering the checkout line weaved through about 15-20 aisles in the front of the store. Nothing was worth waiting in that.

So I guess to conclude, and to put all sarcasm aside, I was skeptical as to whether people would actually come out in droves at midnight as opposed to 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. like usual, but boy did they. In much bigger numbers, too. I guess will be the new normal. Heck in a couple years stores will be open 10:00 a.m. Thanksgiving Day, right?

The upside was that the following day, while the mall itself was pretty packed, Short Pump as a whole didn’t look much more busy than a typical Saturday around the holidays. Midnight shopping took care of the daytime crowds and effectively killed the typical gridlock of Black Friday morning.

Fortunately, I didn’t see anything like the crazy people at a Walmart that rioted over $2 waffle makers, but hey, my photo of the line at Urban Outfitters made it onto Mashable, which was pretty cool. Only thing I saw was a fight over a parking spot at the Short Pump Target. Three police cars showed up. It amazes me how people turn into animals over something so silly.

Waiting in line to be matched up with a homeless/at risk client with the other volunteers at Operation Homeless Connect 2011 at the Greater Richmond Convention Center.

I had the opportunity to take part in a great event put on by Homeward on Thursday. Project Homeless connect is an annual event put on by the organization where those who are homeless or at risk of being so are invited to the Greater Richmond Convention Center to get assistance, support and services.

I arrived early in the morning with several hundred other volunteers and received training on the process. Here’s how it worked: We all lined up inside the exhibition hall as the recipients we were about to meet lined up in the hallway. They were then let in and we were matched with a client at the entranceway.

We then sat down with them at a table, got to know a little about them and their background, and went through a checklist-style worksheet that allowed us to identify the services they most needed during their visit.

Clients could visit a doctor, optometrist, dentist (not to mention get on-site dental work), learn more about housing opportunities, apply for Social Security benefits, get information on employment and educational programs, receive clothing, enjoy a hot meal and much more at different stations set up around the exhibition hall.

We were told that some clients would come in briefly and do as little as just eat lunch, while others would make a day of it taking advantage of all services offered. I got a variety of both over the course of the day as I worked with three different clients.

This was more than just a run-of-the-mill volunteer opportunity where we were there to perform a task. We spent as little or as long as was necessary with each person, guiding them through the stations they wished to visit and staying with them the entire time.

I enjoyed getting to know all three people and learning more about what life was like from their perspectives. But my second client was the one that left the biggest impact on me that day. We’ll call her Jane.

Jane was a woman who was small in stature but big in personality. She made a several mile trek from the Church Hill area to the Convention Center on that cold November day to get help with several things. Jane had a kind smile and gentle demeanor, but was at the same time feisty and no-nonsense. In one word, she was strong. You see, Jane has five kids and is undergoing chemo for breast cancer. And living on under just $200 a month.

We spent a considerable amount of time together as she got the help she needed. And as we chatted over the course of three hours, I got a true sense of just what it was like to live in her day-to-day world. I’m often running short on money for this or that, when an unexpected bill comes in or what have you. But to hear how she stretches a couple hundred bucks and food stamps to make ends meet, endures the cancer treatments and tries to be the best mom she can to her five kids, I felt I could never say I was broke again. I counted my blessings.

We continued talking and she told me a story about how her youngest son, about 10 years old, got upset last year when he found out he wouldn’t be having Christmas, at least in the sense that we think of it with presents and other things we often take for granted. He was too young to understand why. As tears began to stream down her face, she told me how she wouldn’t be able to afford to give them a Christmas again this year, and how deeply it upset her. The tears welled up in my own eyes as she described the little things she’s doing to save a dollar here and there to be able to hopefully get her kids something this Christmas.

Now granted, the issues surrounding homelessness aren’t all black and white. Rather, they’re multiple shades of gray and are  comprised of both preventable and non-preventable factors, depending on the situation. I don’t fully know how Jane (or the other two people I worked with that day) wound up in her current situation. Whether it was her own fault or out of her hands completely, I’ll never know. Nor is it any of my business.

What I do know is however she got to where she is, she’s doing all she can to make a better life for her kids and she’s not looking for a handout (she was employed part-time until her cancer became too debilitating). She gave me the reminder that I think we all need from time to time, that even if we’re short on money or facing tough times, we have it pretty good and need to count and recount our blessings daily.

As we go into the Thanksgiving week, I’m thankful not only for what I have, but to have met Jane and the two others that gave me a glimpse into seemingly another world, right here in the same city as me.

As you get together with your family and friends to share a bountiful meal this Thursday, give thanks for what you have and take a little time to not only think about those less fortunate, but to offer an outstretched hand and do something actionable to make an impact, no matter how small, in the life of someone else.