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Guilt and the sport of buying local.

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. Locally-owned businesses line Main St. in Moncton, Canada.

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.

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Reader Comments (9)

Well said. This is a good reminder about what we're truly paying for when we have to shell out an extra dollar or two for a pastry or latte--spaces that are dedicated to community, that feel like an extension of home. I think even the most liberal people among us can agree that speaking with our dollars matters and you're right to point out that these places will disappear if we don't.

February 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRachel Quednau

Excellent post. We have to maintain all of our resources. Small businesses are the economic lifeblood of the community and the community should act as the heart helping to maintain the local circulation and preservation.

February 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRick Smith

Good stuff.

The big thing that popped into my mind when reading '$3000/mo in rent' and how you like to check out who owns what was this thought: Communities that have thriving small, independent, downtown stores, but whose buildings are owned by a small number of people or outside investors are still subject to profits being consolidated and/or suctioned out of their communities at a scale similar to big box-levels. More local jobs, skills, and social connections will remain, but the longterm wealth of the community is none-the-less negatively impacted. Local programs to increase distributed ownership (or penalize centralized ownership) of a block/neighborhood, or help foster owner-operated/co-op buyouts of out-of-town landlords would be of great benefit to communities in maintaining/advancing their prosperity.

February 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSkyler Yost

I fully agree with the sentiments expressed by the author. Unfortunately, rental prices are dictated by the owners of the property and not by business owners - local or otherwise. Dare I call it supply and demand? We live in a very affluent neighborhood - Greenwich, CT - and most of the "small" family-owned businesses have simply disappeared. In fact, the entire character of the town has changed to the point that most residents don't even want to shop in downtown Greenwich because it resembles a shopping mall.

Is it any wonder that our town centers have been destroyed knowing that Walmart accounts for more than 50% of all retail sales in at least 15 states?

As Chuck has pointed out on numerous occasions, no single person or organization is at fault. This situation is a function of a series of seemingly small interrelated planning and investment decisions that over many years that destroys our sense of community. It takes a leap of great faith and vision to move beyond town planning shackles that condemn many of our towns to mediocrity and a false sense of community.

For small businesses to survive and hopefully prosper, it is best to look for communities where the residents already embrace the implied values which create "strong towns." Sadly, I think it is highly unlikely that a critical mass of residents will see the value of "shopping local" to reverse the years of benign neglect they have shown their town and community. I think it is too late for this process of enlightenment to occur. Residents of towns that do not offer these amenities will simply move to those that do!

It's a lot cheaper and less stressful to move than fight City Hall and residents who may think differently.

February 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRichard May

This is an excellent post. I teach over 60 art students a week and can not stress enough to them to shop at Endeavours. The friendly, knowledgeable staff and great service can not be matched anywhere else. A lot of people do not realize what goes in to running a business and if they choose to shop online or with big box stores, our small independent stores will have to close their doors and then where will they be. . This has been stated very well in this article, not to mention that Fredericton has one of the best downtown cores in Canada. We should be very proud doing what we can to keep it that way.

February 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCarole Forbes

Another way to assist the locally owned business is to pay cash; and let them add the fees they would have paid for processing a debit or credit card to their profits.

February 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterFred Nugent

Another way to assist the locally owned business is to pay cash; and let them add the fees they would have paid for processing a debit or credit card to their profits.

February 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterFred Nugent

Let's remember that most of our most viable urban places were not built for coffee shops and yoga studios. They were often chaotic light industrial, workshops, and professionals who made or provided necessities and commodities for local folks. We need fewer coffee shops and more workshops in our urban cores. These business often have the volume and margins to afford their rent.

Besides, It is simply too difficult to fill a downtown grid with purely yuppie businesses. We should be trying to raid the local commercial and industrial park and convince businesses that don't need service by semi trucks to decamp back to where they belong in the center of town.

March 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

I agree big time with Brian's comments above. Unfortunately, most Chambers of Commerce and Economic Development groups are helping cities score that "White Whale" business for the community. The community leaders including city council members don't know how to compete with big box stores. The small businesses either need to have products big boxes can't get, provide services big boxes won't, or manufacture items a third world worker doesn't have the education to make. Most small businesses don't have the economies of scale in time, labor, or financial resources to compete against the Wal-Marts and the Amazons of the world within their own cities, and those community organizations are not helping to stop the bleeding when the next drive-through wants a chunk of prime core real estate.
I live in a small town very similar to Brainerd. Since we have such a strong car culture, many fellow citizens will shop in a town 100+ miles away because we don't have the selections, prices, or experiences the larger cities can provide. They drive a couple of hours to an event, and then they spend extra time shopping there. If not in another town, many will hop on the world wide web instead. No amount of pleading or guilt from the local media will sway someone to shop in a run-down downtown in the long run.

March 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTom E. Pace

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