The economy is still so weak that one in eight Americans now relies on food stamps to help pay their grocery bills, and yet in May, Mission Minis — a San Francisco purveyor of expensive pygmy cupcakes — experienced such high demand that its exhausted employees were threatening to quit after several marathon days of grueling baked goods preparation. To satisfy the city’s appetite for these Justin Biebers of the dessert world, one Mission Minis employee reportedly spent 52 hours baking, boxing, and taking orders.

All across the country, Average Joe small businesses are enjoying similar boom times in the midst of a recession that has laid the titans of Wall Street to waste. An “unassuming, slightly cramped” spa in New York with a reputation for rudeness suddenly attracts 2,570 blotchy Manhattanites in search of deep-pore cleansing. A… More…

I’ve always been a committed bargain shopper. I love finding the twice-reduced item or the slightly damaged piece of goods that the store manager will knock down to half-price. Part of the pleasure I get is in saving money. But as any discount shopper knows, there are other, more subtle and more philosophical pleasures involved.

Reverse snobbism is one — to boast about how little one spent on something when others like to boast about how much. A swipe at capitalism is another — diverting profits from the coffers of rapacious moguls. But most of all, I am motivated by the pleasure of the hunt: sifting through racks of undistinguished merchandise for something that has escaped the tar brush of cheapness and shoddiness; glimpsing the elegance of a garment underneath the deforming overlay of smocking, ruffles, and bows. If shopping is a sport that requires stamina and practice, it is… More…