July 2006

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Local Guy Makes Major Discoveries About Business

by Rick Brooks, Dane County Buy Local Initiative Steering Committee

Most of your favorite businesses probably have something in common: they are local. They have familiar faces because they’re neighborhood places. The people who work there know your name or your face, and you know theirs. And chances are, the products and services they sell take something other than just profit into account. Every once in a while you may want something you can’t get at one of your favorite places, so you hit the Quickie or MegaMart. But my bet is that you don’t linger. Surprise! The Home Depot is simply not Ace.

My wife and I moved our account from one of the largest pharmacy chains in the nation to a tiny neighborhood drugstore with less than 1/1000th of the product choices. Why? Because the big guys built an entirely new store on University Avenue so they could have a drive-up window. They didn’t care that hundreds of senior citizens couldn’t walk across six lanes of traffic to the new store. Profit trumped friendship and neighborliness.
When I didn’t have enough money for aspirin the other day, Peg, our local pharmacist (who owns the building and the store, by the way) told me she knew my wife would be good for the bill the next time she was in.

So, you make choices; does it make a difference?

Sandi Torkildson of A Room of One’s Own tells about some customers (not necessarily from out of town, by the way) who scan the shelves of her (clearly unique) feminist bookstore. They get her advice on new titles, then buy the books they want from because they are “cheaper” there. Click. Sandy is a bit frustrated by that. Her store is obviously not Barnes & Noble. Thank the Goddess.

Does it make a difference where we buy? Ask Trudy Barash, who used to own the (clearly unique) Canterbury Booksellers. The airport hanger-sized places and online services took over the Madison market like garlic mustard and Canterbury couldn’t get enough oxygen to survive.

Ask Steve and Mary Kay Puntillo at Paragon Video on Monroe Street. Can they beat the prices at Best Buy or Circuit City? Probably not. But can the ever-changing faces at the one-size (BIG) fits-all boxes match the product knowledge and personal approach of their local competition? Absolutely not.

Ask Josie Pradella. She has labored for years to create the momentum for the Dane County Buy Local Initiative and Greener Business Network. Willy Street Co-op is a member for good reason.

Ask yourself. Is there any difference between, say, the Olive Garden and Lombardino’s? Red Lobster and Lazy Jane’s or virtually any eatery along Willy Street? Try any of the restaurants with a Buy Local or Madison Originals sticker in the window. They are clearly unique.

Now whom would you rather do business with? Home Savings Bank, which is owned by its depositors and has just built the first green bank branch in the state, or CitiBank, whose CEO just retired after earning more than $1 billion dollars (!!!) in executive compensation? It wasn’t Madison Hours. Where do you suppose all that money came from?

Is every store or restaurant that is locally, independently owned, ipso facto, always better than a chain store? Maybe not, but they are still here only if we choose them. Like the profusion of plants and critters in a bio-diverse environment, they nurture us if we nurture them. Their lack of sameness makes life much more interesting. It’s authentic.

Favorite places

So. What are your favorite places to get fresh food? Here are mine:
• Willy Street Co-op (surprise!), for its principled commitment to community values, its leadership and just plain weirdness.
• Regent Market Co-op, because it’s in my neighborhood and I am an owner.
• Farmers’ markets because the words “local” and “familiar” might as well be stamped on the foreheads of every vendor.
• CSAs, because their luscious produce tastes so good that I want to eat it despite my childhood full of canned and frozen vegetables, and I admire the courage of the organic pioneers.

Awareness of the importance of such things isn’t a matter of just being nostalgic. It’s not just lefty or righty. Buying from “friendly faces and neighborhood places” is the way we can choose to live. We can choose businesses where the owners practically know every customer by name or we can choose a company that has made it possible for eight members of the same family to have a net worth of more than 18 billion dollars apiece while squeezing small local suppliers out of business. We can support neighborhood causes—our kids’ sports teams, green businesses, community gardens and fair trade—or we can not think about it and send our credit card handling fees to far-away banks that know us only as numbers.

Oh, is that what this is about?

Holiday Inn used to have a big ad campaign reassuring customers that no matter where you went you would not be surprised. Every motel would offer similar decor, hospitality and (supposedly) same quality. 7-11 Stores tried the same approach. They looked the same worldwide, offering the same selection of stuff you really didn’t need to chew, smoke, drink, use or eat. You could count on it.

The stories behind the products on Willy Street Co-op shelves, behind the ownership and struggles and pleasures of running your own unique business, tell of exchanges that have as much to do with heart and right livelihood as dollars and cents. We’re exchanging things like goodwill and care. We’re thinking about fairness, and even dignity. This requires mindfulness; choosing what and how we buy based on certain principles.

A colleague who started the Conscious Community and Business Network in Reno, Nevada (of all places!) is even more effusive than I am about all this. He convinced more than 400 locally and independently-owned businesses that their success could keep hundreds of millions of dollars from “leaking” out of the local economy. And he went further, suggesting that where people spend and don’t spend their dollars could contribute to common virtues like compassion, kindness, generosity, humility, patience, joy, appreciation, authenticity, trustworthiness, balance, and self-reliance. He also suggested that the time-honored American values around independence really depend on interdependence; that qualities like perseverance, acceptance and respect for natural forces greater than greed actually matter.

And you thought you were just buying toothpaste and rutabagas!

Buy local

If this list of values is too long for you, then keep it simple. Buy Local. Then look at the pictures and stories about clearly unique locally-owned businesses on and see what their values are. Choosing to shop there may be worth more than you realize.