Shop Girl

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(HOST) A new movie by Steve Martin has commentator Peter Gilbert thinking about what characteristics Americans generally think of when they think of Vermonters.

(GILBERT) I just saw the movie “Shop Girl,” starring Steve Martin. He also wrote the screenplay and the book upon which the movie is based. The movie’s rated R; it might be called a romantic comedy – but bittersweet.

In one scene a gold digger in Los Angeles advises another young woman how she can snare a rich guy under false (and indecent) pretenses. But the nice shop girl, the film’s heroine, says, “I couldn’t do all that.”

“How come?”

“I’m from Vermont,” she replies.

The line gets cheers and applause in Vermont theaters. When the shop girl says she’s from Vermont, the author’s using shorthand to say that she has certain values – admirable values – like decency, a recognition that money isn’t everything, and, above all, honesty.

Isn’t it nice that our state is associated nationwide with honesty?

When I was a kid, I remember my mother going into a hardware store in Manchester. She told the man she needed fifty-two yards of webbing – to replace the old webbing on aluminum folding lawn chairs. The salesman took down a huge roll and began to measure it off. Then he stopped, and handing her the whole roll, said, “Here. When you bring it back, tell us how much you’ve used.”

My mother was surprised. She thanked them, and then added as an afterthought, “Don’t you want to know who I am?”

The salesman replied, “You’re going to bring it back, aren’t you?”

We’ve all been to Vermont farm stands that have a coffee can or cigar box where you leave your money. More cautious farm stands have a sign that says “Please put your money in the slot in the door.” At least that way, a person could, I suppose, walk off with the sweet corn and tomatoes, but not the cash from the till.

Recently I saw a sign in a public building in St. Albans that said, “Soda is $.75 a can. Put money in Cool Whip bowl on top of refrigerator.”

The survey of the Quality of Life conducted by the Vermont Business Rountable last year reports that seventy-one percent of Vermonters say that most people in Vermont can be trusted, compared with just thirty-four percent in national polls.

I don’t know if Vermonters are any more honest than any one else. But I like to think so – in part out of pride, I suppose, and in part because to a certain degree, it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy: if you think people are honest, you’re more likely to be honest, too; if you trust people, people are more likely to trust you. Now, we all should know that if you trust people, sooner or later, you’re going to get burned; that’s just the way it is. We have to decide whether, knowing that, we’ll keep trusting. I think that reasonable trust, like love, is worth the risk. Because being trusted and trusting others contributes to one’s quality of life – even if you get disappointed now and again.

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.

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