Think Gobally, Buy Locally
The Importance of Shopping Small
This year I am trying something new. I'm going to try to put some meaning into my holiday shopping. To accomplish this I am going into uncharted land: I am going to think small. I am going to avoid malls, e-shopping (not even an option for my off-line self), and cataloguesmostly. (If you can tell me where to get a Wallace and Gromit clock without calling Wireless, I'm all ears.) I am going to spend more money and time in small, independently owned businesses instead of the Targets and Wal-Marts of the world.
I know, I knowthis is smart-consumer heresy. Big national chain stores have more inventory, often at cheaper prices, and are usually open later. All very good selling points. But sometimes convenience comes at a dear cost. I found this out on a recent visit to The Avenue at White Marsh, the suburban replica of an old-time small-town business-district (complete with reproduction gaslight lamps). Forget the Mayberry image. This is global-economy retailing in all its glory: cavernous chain restaurants and stores where you buy scented candles, golf clubs, books about the stock market, clothes designed for anorexic bodieswhatever you need, at the most competitive prices, all within mere feet of each other. It hardly bears repeating that this faux Main Street is a marketing ploy; the only thing that's real here is the message that, among its many other attributes, consumerism also builds community.
What's lost in such Disneyfied attempts to build community through commerce are businesses that meet peoples' real needs, such as the ones found at the "other"Avenue on 36th Street in Hampden. Sure, this Avenue is lined with trendy restaurants, thrift stores, and small galleries, but it also offers area residents some of the most eclectic cafés in town, one of the area's few remaining appliance stores, a G.C. Murphy's, a barbershop, and stall-sized grocers.
These merchants, and others like them throughout Baltimore, still exist because they meet many peoples' sustenance needs. They don't cater to the gross excesses of the chain-store Zeitgeist that breeds consumerist corpulence. They're about quality, not quantity. When you shop at local independent bookstores/cafés such as Adrian's, you won't find the shelves bowing under the weight of endless how-to-titles, voyeurish confessional memoirs, or mass-market fiction, as they are at Barnes & Noble. But you will find excellent selections of books on history, gay and lesbian literature, fine arts and criticism, erotica, and lesser-known but no less important authors.
Another reason I'm going small this holiday season is customer service. I'm weary of suffering salespeople who are indifferent to my needs. I'm tired of chain-store staffers who act like answering my questions or knowing about their own store's merchandise isn't part of the job. (Ironic considering how fiercely the chains advertise their efforts to out-satisfy the competition.) I rarely find such surly ignorance at the independents. At Bibelot and Towson Artists' Supply, I find committed, knowledgeable staff who groove on talking about Harlem-renaissance writers or the virtues of drawing with charcoalpeople who make recommendations you can trust rather than just directing you to aisle five.
That's why many Towson University art professors send students in need of higher-end supplies to Towson Artists' Supply, where five of 12 employees have worked for at least 10 years, rather than Crafts-R-Us behemoths like Michael's Arts & Crafts. It's why pharmacies such as Purdum in Stoneleighwhich still delivers and offers in-house charge accounts to customers with special needssurvive despite being overshadowed by Rite Aid and CVS. "Service," says Paige Rose, co-owner of Fells Point bookstore Mystery Loves Company, "is the most important product for small, independent businesses."
But what I like most about independent businesses is that they keep money in our communities. The employees and owners of these businesses often live and shop close by, and the money we spend in their stores continues circulating in the local economy, subsidizing the local community. Big-box retailers' profits go back to corporate headquarters. Money that used to fill local banks' coffers or, via small businesses, support local charities goes to, say, Bentonville, Ark., home of Wal-Mart.
Many communities wish Wal-Mart would follow its profits back to Arkansas. The nation's largest retailer's plans to open new stores have been rebuffed by communities in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine and have been opposed in nine other states because its appetite is monopolistic. This is why many residents of Kent County on the Eastern Shore are fighting to stop Wal-Mart coming in to build one of its 109,000-square-foot superstores. The fear, says Brenda Horrocks, member of the Coalition for the Preservation of Chestertown, is that the retail giant will devour any competitors in its path.
Horrocks has good reason for such fears. A study by economist Tom Muller predicted that Wal-Mart would capture "80 to 100 percent" of retail sales in Kent County. There is little doubt, he says, that the "size and likely sales level" would severely restrict and even eliminate businesses that sell merchandise similar to what Wal-Mart carries.
Wal-Mart threatens more than just the well-being of competing businesses; it threatens entire communities, as argued in The Case Against the Global Economy: And for a Turn Toward the Local, edited by Gerry Mander and Edward Goldsmith. When it moves into a new town, the book states, Wal-Mart "sets prices below cost to draw customers away from the [community's] commercial center. . . . Soon the lure of one-stop shopping and cheap prices are too much for local consumers already watching their budgets." Consumers get hooked; competing merchants with smaller pockets either have to switch their product lines or go out of business. Once the competition is out of the way and the Wal-Mart has a captive market, the prices go up.
Often, even the benefits of the big stores are temporary. According to statistics from the American Planning Association, there are about 800 abandoned shopping centers around the United States. When the stores fail to earn projected profits, or corporations want to build even bigger to compete with encroaching rivals, the concrete boxes are left vacant. That's why Bob Welte, co-founder of the Talbot Preservation Alliance (which pushed for a three-month moratorium on building big-box structures in the Eastern Shore county) fears the possible opening of a 120,000-square-foot Home Depot in Easton. "If that happens, Lowe's says that they will leave their present 45,000-square-foot store and build a 110,000-square-foot one nearby."
Please understand. It's not that I'm opposed to retail business, or saving a buck. I understand why people on tight incomes welcome Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and the like with open arms; there are no alternatives for them to command buying power. But I am opposed to the thoughtlessness of many people who make middle-class or higher salaries yet turn a blind eye to our increasingly homogenized, interchangeable landscapes in the name of saving a few dollars.
Which is why maybe we should look closely at alternative economies such as Ithaca Hour. Started in 1991 in upstate New York, Ithaca Hour is a local, barter-based currency in which residents with little or no income can perform services vital to the community, such as elder care, day care, and minor carpentry work and receive a fully legal paper tender worth $10 at participating businesses. Four hundred local businesses participate, as do thousands of Ithacans who trade approximately $1 million a year. The beauty of such an arrangementcurrently used in 65 communities in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and France, according to Enough!, a newsletter of the advocacy group Center for a New American Dreamis that it enables lower-income folks to earn more than minimum wage for their work and, in turn, make money go further. They also keep small, locally owned businesses alive, and thus keep wealth in local hands. "Local currency enables people to create practical markets to meet local needs," said Paul Glover, executive director of Ithaca Hour, in an Enough! interview.
Creating a currency that forces us to rethink the importance and value we place on locally owned businesses, and the role that they can play in strengthening real (as opposed to Disneyfied, consumer-based) communities, might be a viable alternative to big-box businesses as usual. At least it's a start towards breaking our dependence on them. Now, if I can just find a Wallace and Gromit clock in one of those mom-and-pop stores before Dec. 24, I'll be in business.
The 2009 City Paper Holiday Guide
The Gifts That Count (11/18/2009)
The presents that have stayed in our writers' thoughts
The Wish List (11/18/2009)
Gifts we wish we could afford
Forward Into the Past (1/2/2002)
Why New Year's Is a Time for Looking Backward
Net Gain (8/22/2001)
How a Jaded Tennis Bum Recaptured His Love of the Sport
Quiet, Please (6/13/2001)
On the Consequences of a Society Living Out Loud
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