Simple pleasures gain ground

In tough times, people are increasingly turning to activities such as board games and musical evenings with friends.

By Mark Guarino | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Every Sunday morning, as most people line up outside neighborhood breakfast spots, watch TV news shows, or head for church, Chloris Noelke-Olson is tuning up her fiddle. She’s preparing to enjoy bluegrass music the old-fashioned way: with friends, at home, for free.

“To be able to play with other people face to face and have that sort of connection, it’s spiritual,” Ms. Noelke-Olson said of the weekly house concerts in Chicago she participates in. “It’s like a good conversation with instruments – something that doesn’t seem to happen much anymore because everyone is blabbering on their cellphones.”

She is among a growing group of Americans who are finding it cathartic to unplug from the digital grid, at least temporarily. While there is no exact data to track how many people are forming knitting groups, hosting house concerts, or organizing family game nights, it is possible to connect the dots between the rising price of entertainment and the rising sales of board games and craft supplies.

Between 2007 and 2008, the prices for restaurant meals, concert tickets, and movie tickets all increased.

At the same time, board games sales rose 6 percent, while total toy sales decreased 3 percent.

Craft retailers such as Michaels and Jo-Ann Stores reported revenue gains in 2008 for home crafting supplies.

These trends are expected to continue because of the struggling economy. Instead of outfitting their homes with expensive home entertainment systems, consumers are more likely to be interfacing the old-fashioned way: eye-to-eye. Families are rediscovering ways to come together that have nothing to do with high tech.

“Conspicuous consumption is out. People are turning inward to build in enjoyment time for family and home,” said Linda Bettencourt, an interior designer in San Francisco whose clients typically live in million-dollar homes.

Over the past six months, Ms. Bettencourt has been hired to redesign living spaces to foster the kind of connectivity that doesn’t involve wires.

Due, in part, to the phenomenon of “staycations” – vacations confined to the home – homes are being refashioned to be comfortable retreats rather than showplaces.

Homeowners are returning to natural wood, warmer colors, and family spaces designed around one central item: “The big game table is back,” she says.

“People want to sit around and see each other’s faces rather than facing a flat-screen TV,” Bettencourt says. “These days, I’m finding, people want to sit with each other at the end of their day.”

Although expensive video-game consoles mostly replaced traditional board games in family living rooms, the toy industry is discovering a renewed interest in less-expensive games.

A major theme at the American International Toy Fair in New York City in mid-February was how manufacturers are responding to the recession by reinvesting in games priced at $50 or less.

“[Board games] provide great play value because you can play with them for years to come,” said Adrienne Citrin, spokesperson for the Toy Industry Association Inc. “People are nesting at home and looking for more activities to do. You can spend $30 or $40 on a board game and have them forever.”

European board games are taking hold in the US, particularly for adults. Fantasy board games have emerged as alternatives to video games, appealing to adults who prefer a nonviolent game that can be played in one sitting among friends.

“These games are so good, they’re enjoyable by everybody, whereas video games involve one person,” said Scott Alden of Dallas.

After working as a graphic animator in the video game industry, Mr. Alden quit to run, an online clearinghouse of board game reviews and news. Last year the site saw its number of visitors increase by 30 percent over the same period the year before.

Alden reports that the sophistication and relative affordability of the Euro games are their greatest draw. “If you go to the movies and take your kids, it’s 50 bucks, maybe more. You can buy a game instead, or two games, and play them multiple times, over and over,” he says.

The recession is helping turn a younger generation to traditions they ignored when times were good.

Group knitting, for instance, continues to grow among young urbanites and the sale of handmade knits sold at city craft fairs or via the Internet is booming because “there’s appreciation of the person [who made it] and time that went into it,” says Debbie Stoller of New York, author of a series of books about the current knitting phenomenon.

Ms. Stoller formed her own knitting group 10 years ago. Today there are more than 500 similar groups across the globe, not just in the US but in countries such as Dubai and South Africa.

Stoller, also the editor in chief of BUST magazine, says that young knitters are embracing needlework because they never learned it from their mothers.

“Now daughters are … saying, ‘This is really pleasant and fun to do and really valuable,’ ” she says.

Knitting groups meet weekly at members’ homes, or in cafes or stores. The appeal, says Stoller, is sharing tangible skills that have real value.

“Young people have no idea it can take two months to make a sweater … it’s important then to spend time with other people who appreciate that and admire the craft,” she says.

However, a return to simpler activities such as knitting and board games isn’t just the domain of the young.

Noelke-Olson, the Chicago fiddle player, says that her house jams typically involve players over 50 who are reconnecting to instruments they abandoned in early adulthood.

She started organizing weekly jams in 1996. They involve potluck meals and up to 12 amateur musicians playing in spontaneous clusters scattered throughout a member’s home.

She sees the phenomenon as the true manifestation of her generation, which had turned more to media for music rather than personal participation.

“In the 1960s, we went out and marched when there was something wrong,” she says. “Now a bunch of petulant people sit down and type their opinions on blogs, for all the good it does. People, they’ve distanced themselves from other people … but none of it’s like the responsibility that comes from sitting face to face with another person.”

Noelke-Olson played her first jam 40 years after she first abandoned playing the fiddle. She remembers watching two players in a stairwell play against one another “for all they were worth. Later, when I came back, they were still there. I thought: Whoa, there is something more to this than meets the eye. Whatever it is, it’s genuine,” she says. “And it is.”

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