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About John

Your Guide to Small Town Living, from
Determining if Life in the Country Lane is for You, to
Choosing the Perfect Place to Set Roots, to
Making your Dream Come True


by John Clayton



It might be the scenery that draws you -- mountains, rivers, farmlands, or forests. It might be images of a rural lifestyle, or the accessibility of recreational opportunities. It might be a job opportunity, or one for your spouse. It might be memories of a tight-knit community you experienced as a child. Or it might be visions of a place free of crime, traffic, or stress.

Whatever planted this seed, whatever nurtured it, you've arrived at a notion you can't shake. You want to move to a small town.

Maybe you've even chosen one. Friends or family live there...

the area's economy is growing...

it placed highly in a rating guide...

or you recently visited and realized you never wanted to leave.

Still, the thought of such a radical change is scary. Abandoning your metropolitan area, with friends, cultural opportunities, a lifestyle to which you've grown accustomed. What can you expect from your new home? Will the cultural adjustment be too hard? And how will the natives accept you? What can make the process easier?

Let this book be your guide.

A new migratory trend

You are not alone. A decades-long trend of rural depopulation -- people leaving the farms to seek better opportunities in the cities -- is reversing itself. According to the U.S Census Bureau, the population of rural areas grew 4.7 percent in the 1980s. Many small towns, particularly those located in scenic areas, are now facing development pressures. They used to wonder how to plug the drain of young people moving out of town; now they wonder how to accommodate the overflow of people moving in.

Everything about this migration is new, not just the direction. In fact, if you're part of it, you're part of one of the hottest demographic trends in the country. In analyzing it, sociologists have pointed out two unique factors. The first is motivations. In the past, people moved from rural areas to cities to improve their economic or cultural opportunities. Or they moved from one metropolitan area to another (often seeking neighborhoods resembling those they left) because of the demands of a career. But today, people are moving away from the cities for a host of other, interconnected reasons. These reasons are frequently summed up using the phrase "quality of life." We'll examine these reasons and their relationships throughout the book.

The second unique factor is the demographic diversity of the new migrants. It used to be that young people left rural areas to start life in the city. But the faces of migration are changing. For example, many of the people now moving to small towns are retirees, freed of obligations to a career. Towns in the south and southwest, blessed with warm weather, have been particularly popular retirement destinations. However, many senior citizens are discovering that the quality of life they seek involves more than weather: a range of leisure-time opportunities, amenities such as clean air and water, and the sociability and friendliness of a small town.

Another type of small-town migrant has similar motives but a very different lifestyle. The much-celebrated "modem cowboy" is a professional whose use of modern technology allows him or her to locate anywhere in the country. These people are broadening the economic and cultural horizons of formerly-remote areas, with exciting implications for the future of rural America.

And beyond these telecommuters lie a whole range of migrants -- blue-collar workers, retailers, entrepreneurs, and employees of companies that have decided to move their entire operations to a rural community.

Whichever of these classes of migrants you fit in (or even if you're in a class by yourself), you'll face the same types of adjustments. Because -- let's face it -- small towns are different. No matter how embedded they are in the national psyche, no matter how much we think of them as "typically American," small towns have a culture very different from that of metropolitan areas. In some ways, moving to a small town is like moving to a foreign country.

It doesn't feel like a foreign country, of course (and luckily!). People there speak English, drive on the right-hand side of the road, and vote in Presidential elections. But compared to your old neighbors, these people really are different. Living in a small town makes them that way. If they were born and raised there, they were indoctrinated into this unique culture at an early age. And if they moved there from elsewhere, they likely adapted their personalities to fit their new surroundings. Or they chose these surroundings to fit their unique personalities. Their viewpoints, their prejudices, and their perspectives on a variety of issues may catch you by surprise. And a slip-up may be costly. Despite the best of intentions, your statements or actions (or failures to act) may send the wrong message, and you'll find yourself disliked or resented.

Unless you have this book. Consider this book your "cultural guide" to the small town. Just as you might read a book on Japanese culture before taking a trip to Japan (or moving to Japan, or doing business with Japan), read this book before moving to a small town. And refer back to it once you're there. Use it to understand the motives and desires of the people you encounter.

An important step is to understand the traditions and folkways -- the mindset -- of the people who will be your new neighbors. Once you do this, you'll be better able to bridge a cultural gap -- a vital step in setting up your new life. (You may even decide, with this new knowledge, that small-town culture isn't really for you. If so, this book will have served a valuable purpose.)

The next step -- adopting this culture as your own -- is up to you. You may decide to dive in, impressed with how it works for others. Or you may respect it in others but reject it for your own lifestyle, retaining your old traditions and values in your home (much like Americans living abroad, who celebrate Thanksgiving on a day that their neighbors find no different from any other). With either decision, however, knowledge of that culture -- of those rules and ideals that everyone around you is following -- will be essential for your happiness and success in your new home.

What is a small town?


Ask five people to define a small town and you'll probably get five different answers. (Ask the Census Bureau to define a small town and they'll refuse to answer: a population of 25,000 constitutes a "city," they say, and 2,500 to 25,000 is a "place," but a small town has no official definition.) To one of the seven million residents of New York City, a population of 100,000 residents may constitute a small town. On the other hand, Wyomingites see Cheyenne, with a population of 50,008, as not just a city but a metropolis.

Some urbanites use the terms "small town" and "country" interchangeably. Either is simply a place with fewer people than the city or its suburbs. On the other hand, some people make an important distinction: a "small town" (the term "village" is frequently used in the Northeast) is a place with businesses, shops, residential neighborhoods; "the country" is simply farmland or forest or desert, perhaps with a residence every mile, or every twenty miles.

Nevertheless, when you think about moving to a small town, you're probably not thinking about a specific population figure. You're thinking about the benefits of a relative difference in population density, intangibles such as neighborliness, community, or a perceived simplicity of life. This book uses the term "small town" in that sense -- as a difficult-to-describe atmosphere, rather than a strictly-defined product of population or architecture. Perhaps the best summation of this state of mind was offered by a resident of my town, trying to define the most valuable characteristic of our friendly, close-knit community, who said, "Only in a place like this can you have a conversation with a misdialed phone number."

It's a quality of life you seek, rather than a population figure. You may find that quality of life in a town with 50 people or 50,000; you may find it "downtown" or in place where your nearest neighbor is seven miles up a dirt road. It depends on your personality, and that of the surrounding community. (These important distinctions are addressed in Chapter 2.) But regardless of how you define the small town, it's far different from the city or suburb you're leaving.

You may be hesitant. How, you're thinking, can one book describe small towns all around the country? How can it cover all of that wide diversity: the Midwestern heartland, the desert oasis, the New England village, the Western cow town, the agricultural hamlet, the logging camp, the university community, the ski or golf or beach resort?

The answer is that it can't, fully. There's no question there are differences. One of the things we enjoy about many small towns is that they retain a great deal of regional and historical character. They're islands of individuality in an increasingly homogeneous society. So this should not be your only guide, especially if you are moving to a different region of the country. If, for example, you're moving from Boston or Nashua to a New England village, you may have some familiarity with what you're getting into. But if you're moving there from, say, San Antonio, you may want to learn about the wonderful peculiarities of New Englanders.

However, regardless of the particulars of your metropolitan origin and your small-town destination, your biggest challenge will be adjusting to the rhythms of the smaller community. It is these differences that are uniquely addressed by this book.

How to use this book


This book is structured to meet your needs, attempting to address the various issues that could arise in the process of your move. Chapter 1 addresses your decision about whether to move to a small town:

  • It helps you identify your motives for considering this move, and the implications of those motives;
  • It paints a very generalized picture of small-town life, helping you evaluate the truthfulness of your images of the small town: safe, neighborly, gossipy, quaint;
  • Finally, it spells out the tradeoffs involved in moving to a small town, and how you can answer for yourself the question "Is this move right for me?"

Chapter 2 focuses on evaluating small towns, helping you to choose the particular environment that will be right for you:

  • If you have no idea what town you might want to move to, this chapter tells you how to identify some possibilities;
  • It presents some general rules of thumb to help you distinguish good small towns;
  • It discusses a wealth of specific criteria against which you can judge your candidates;
  • It also gives instructions on acquiring the information you need to make your decision.

In Chapter 3 we'll look at getting a job, which is often one of the most important considerations for potential migrants:

  • Tips and techniques for getting a job before arriving in town;
  • Factors to consider about working at home or for a small business 
  • The differing attitudes toward employment held by many people in the small town.

Of course, if you decide to move, you've made only the first step. The subject of Chapter 4 is how you start your new life in the small town:

  • How to meet and form bonds with your new neighbors;
  • How to enter the community in ways that will make you feel valued rather than resented;
  • Factors you may need to consider in setting up your career.

Chapter 5 discusses prospering in your small town. And because (as you'll soon discover if you don't already know) small towns are usually lousy places to make money, your "prosperity" will be defined in other ways, such as:

  • Dropping some old, ingrained habits that may put you at odds with the small-town philosophy;
  • Some approaches to handling the rumor mill;
  • The implications of the small town's priorities on community life over personal status.

Finally, Chapter 6 examines how to preserve your newfound quality of life, insuring that you find the small town as fulfilling and promising 20 years from now as you do on moving day.

The book also contains three running features included as sidebars. First, throughout the book, we'll be listening to the advice of numerous individuals who have successfully made this move themselves. These individuals vary in age, gender, occupation, socioeconomic status, and geographic location. Their experiences and recommendations illustrate various points through self-contained profiles. In these sidebars, you'll hear them tell their stories: how and why they decided to move, or what they found when they did so.

A second series of sidebars analyzes how small-town life is depicted in the media. Does the current fervor for small places reflect reality or the romantic impulses of a Hollywood screenwriter? How might your affection for certain movies or television shows be played out in a real-life small town?

The third series of sidebars summarizes the recommendations of each chapter in a feature called 20 Questions. Like the children's guessing game, these sets of questions should help you hone in on answers to issues such as which town to choose or how to get a job. Though the questions summarize points in the text, they should also provide new perspective by giving different twists to issues and mixing up the order of their presentation.

A warning: the book is filled with cautionary tales. It's filled with the difficulties of small-town life: the economic insecurity, the isolation, the rumor mill, the lack of amenities. That's not because the author hates small towns -- indeed, I live in one, and moving here was one of the most productive, enriching, satisfying acts of my life.

But on the other hand, I was lucky. I was suited to small-town life. For too many friends, however, the small town has not lived up to their dreams. They've had to move on, bitter about the experience, vowing that next time they'll look before they leap. The cautionary tales here are for the benefit of their contemporaries -- people who are ready to leap and want to look first, but (until now) haven't known how to do so.

Another reason this book doesn't play up the many benefits of small-town life is that these benefits are so widely known and appreciated. There's little need to sell you on the value of never being in a traffic jam. (Or of defining a "traffic jam" as two cars behind a stop sign.) There's little need to introduce America to the joys of knowing and respecting your neighbors, feeling a closer link to nature and the environment, or leaving your car unlocked on the street. These and other attributes of small-town life are rightfully part of our American heritage, and our vision of a collective future. They're dreams many of us share, dreams to which you don't need an introduction.

What you need is a guide: which aspects of these dreams can come true, and how.

Are you ready to order?

*     Order Small Town Bound online now!

--- -- Revised: 11/21/2011


Copyright 1996-2011 John Clayton info [at]