This is the first time in two years that I have written for this page. In case you are like me and a little forgetful, I'll remind you that I worked for 43 years as a reporter, associate editor, and twice-weekly columnist for The Inquirer before retiring in 2005.

This year, my life changed dramatically, and not only because I have reached an age at which I can no longer deny my senior status. In March, I underwent the first of five spinal-cord surgeries that ultimately left me paralyzed from the waist down.

After nearly five months either in a hospital or a rehabilitation facility, I finally went home in July, and I am in the midst of recovering from the long ordeal. Having survived it, I am happy to be able to share and give thanks to God. I will write more about my life changes and disability later.

I write today in the spirit of the season. Those of you who remember my columns are familiar with my adventures in last-minute Christmas shopping - quite often on Christmas Eve. When I shopped at Christmastime, I wore my reporter's cap and was armed with a notepad and pencil. I keenly observed the scene around me and the way people treated each other.

I especially enjoyed going to mom-and-pop stores. I have long found that the smaller stores, with the owners right on the scene, are more accommodating, personable, and appreciative of business. And their employees are more knowledgeable about their products than those in the larger stores, who during the Christmas rush are often temporary part-timers.

This year, because of my disability, I have been unable to do my last-minute shopping - or, for that matter, any shopping - so I'll share the places I have frequented over the years.

Our Place, a women's clothing store in Center City, on Spring Garden near 15th Street, is just one convenient block from the Inquirer and Daily News building. It sells quality women's clothing and costume jewelry at the right prices. The owner was always helpful to a guy like me who was unsure what to buy his wife.

Then there was Denise's Bakery in North Philadelphia, on North 22d Street near Cambria, one of the best in the city. One year, I bought a coconut layer cake there for Christmas dinner. My mother made the best coconut layer cake ever, but if I hadn't known it was a Denise's cake, I would have thought my mother baked it.

At the Cheltenham Mall is Mike Stevens Mens Store, where I bought caps.

In Germantown, the area around Chelten Avenue was a vibrant shopping district 30 years ago. It's less than a shadow of its past now, but it still has a couple of small retail outlets that are doing good business, such as City Blue and USA Boutique.

Farther up Germantown Avenue, near Johnson Street, is Lucien Crump's Art Gallery, which sells prints and paintings by black artists. The late Lucien Crump was a master painter and sculptor, and the gallery is now operated by his widow. I have bought many gifts there over the years.

In Chestnut Hill, my favorite store is called Little Nook. It sells designer and costume jewelry, and small items for the home.

In the suburbs is Sweet Jazmines, a Berwyn pastry shop run by a young chef named Kim Davis Cuthbert. She's known for her sweet-potato muffins.

People are treated with courtesy and respect at all these places. As I waited at Denise's one late afternoon, heavy traffic backed up on North 22d. Nothing was moving, including a SEPTA bus across the street, and the driver began to blow his horn. One of the workers in the bakery said, "There he is," grabbed a wrapped package, and ran toward the bus. The driver got out to take it from her and quickly got back on his bus, his route uninterrupted.

I smiled as he drove away; so did some of the passengers. He was clearly a regular customer.

I won't be able to shop in these stores this year. I could use the Internet, but it's too impersonal. I can't think of living in a culture where people no longer talk to each other in person.