I spend a lot of time browsing through real estate listings, getting an idea of who owns the buildings I love most and the ones that make me cringe. The other day, I came across exactly the kind of retail storefront property that houses some of my favourite downtown destinations - lively location, exposed brick, beautiful windows, vintage street appeal. Rent is $3,500 a month for ~3000 sqft. including parking. To my knowledge, there is nothing unusual about the rent but at the time the number burned into my brain.
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. I crave the opportunity to become a welcomed regular at a few favourite places. I love the variety that independent businesses bring to town centres everywhere. I love seeing people take pride in their work, and seeing a community take pride in its local businesses. 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 this beautiful interview on Fresh Air between Terry Gross and author Ann Patchett who opened a bookstore in Nashville:
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.
The good guilt reminds me that buying local is how I can help pick up the tab for my beloved town centre. It’s frightening to me how quickly the places and people that I love downtown could be out of business. The window displays that spark warm nostalgia would be gone. The shop-owners that patiently explain why they stock that particular brand and how they test everything out themselves would no longer have an outlet for their passion and knowledge.
My partner has wanted to play drums since he was a little kid but could never afford a kit until this year. On four weekends, we walked over to the downtown music store, Tony’s, which is staffed mostly by professional musicians to play and admire the electronic drum kit. Finally one evening it was waiting in boxes for us to bring home. The staff helped us carry it out to the cab. Tony’s never rushed us or side-eyed as we tinkered with expensive equipment. There’s invariably a teenager in the store, playing away on some special guitar they’re saving up to buy. It’s a happy place that embodies the whole journey of musicianship. My partner checked - he would have saved a handful if he bought the kit on Amazon. He considered doing so. But he realized that the Tony’s experience, not just the drum kit was making his childhood dream come true.
Buying local has become a bit of a sport for us. We practice “reverse showrooming” - looking up reviews of a product online and then finding a local bricks and mortar retailer from which to buy it - and relish the feel-good of walking in a store and knowing someone will get commission.
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 placemaking benefits of unique local businesses, we need to make sure they can cover their rent too.