In an article in Strong Towns today, “Guilt and the Sport of Buying Local” writer Gracen Johnson explores the concept of taking personal responsibility for the economic well-being of your town, city or neighborhood.
You may pay a little more at the corner storefront than on Amazon or at a national chain but the real cost would be not having the corner storefront around. The little more you pay is exponentially more to the merchant whose livelihood depends on the neighborhood as much as the neighborhood depends on his livelihood. Sometimes, that merchant is your neighbor.
When retail is small, it becomes more integrated into daily patterns, and the more small retail there is, the less trouble you have integrating it. It’s easier to walk three blocks for milk and eggs than to drive to a big parking lot to get them.
But the point of buying local is so purposeful that it can sometimes be inconvenient. I make a side trip every two weeks to buy pet food at the only indy pet store I know of in the city, Smiley’s Pet Pad in Shadyside. It's not out of the way because I am already in the East End doing other errands. I may pay a little more; it’s negligible in the scheme of things. I believe my business means something to Smiley’s business. It would mean nothing to Petco.
But it’s more than “us” people vs. "them” corporations. Corporations hire our neighbors and some small businesses are legally corporations. It’s more about supporting people whose stores are size equivalent to neighborhood places, a scale that lets you get to know each other and engage in interpersonal uplift.
Johnson’s article is eloquent. Here’s a portion:
“If you’re a small business owner and take a gamble on this property, you’ve got to be bringing in over $100 per day just to pay rent. Then there’s the cost of your inventory, wages, marketing, administration, etc. When I think of how small the profit margins are on most of what I buy, and how infrequently I purchase items with large margins this all started to make my head spin. The cafés that serve as our offices, meeting rooms, and third places are earning mere cents on a cup of coffee. Our downtown art store is matching Amazon pricing while paying a team of top-notch staff. How do these places survive? Are the owners just in it as a labour of love?
“I’ve long been a proponent of the buy local movement for the warm fuzzies. Warm fuzzies are a powerful motivator but now I can bolster them with an even stronger one: guilt. Not a gross guilt that you want to shake off your back but a guilt carved out of admiration.
“It was defined a week later for me in [a] beautiful interview on Fresh Air between Terry Gross and author Ann Patchett who opened a bookstore in Nashville.”
The interview contained this quote from Ms. Patchett, the author of the brilliant page-turner “Bel Canto” among other novels:
“It’s not that I think no one should buy books online. […] But I think that what’s important is if you value a bookstore, if that’s something that you want in your community, if you want to take your children to story hour, if you want to meet the authors who are coming through town, if you want to get together for a book club at a bookstore or come in and talk to the smart booksellers, if you want to have that experience of a bookstore, then it is up to you.
“It is your responsibility to buy your book in the bookstore. And that’s what keeps the bookstore there. And that’s true for any little independent business. You can’t go into the little gardening store and talk to them about pesticides and when do you plant and what kind of tools do you need and use their time for an hour and their intelligence and then go to Lowe’s and buy your plants for less. That you cannot do.”
Gracen Johnson continues:
“The good guilt has turned me pretty price insensitive. That’s not to say I’m flush with cash or that the independent retailer is more expensive. It’s just that once I meet my basic needs, it matters to me less how much I acquire than how I acquire it. To enjoy the place-making benefits of unique local businesses, we need to make sure they can cover their rent too.”
Photo of Federal Street businesses, 1930s: Courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh Archives