I’ve blown New Year’s resolutions before, but never as spectacularly as I did this year when I pledged to only spend my money locally. It seemed simple: Choose local bookstores over Amazon, locally operated shops over Target and local restaurants over chains.
With my finances in limbo, my first impulse is to do without. But with a household to run, I still end up buying a good bit. And with the global economy reeling, I was interested in helping the local economy, which is suffering in a way that is hardly abstract. Stores are shutting down, leaving empty storefronts even in prime locations. The owners of several shops in my community live in my neighborhood.
I had trouble from the get-go. My book club assignment was Barack Obama’s memoir. My locally owned bookstore didn’t stock it, even though his inauguration was weeks away. The clerk offered to order the book and said she would call me.
Inauguration came and went. When I called, the clerk snapped that she would call me when the book arrived, and she had no idea when that would be. I borrowed the book. I never got a call from the bookstore, which has since closed.
Next, I needed a hair product for my daughter. The local shops didn’t stock the brand. The closest store was 15 miles away. I decided to buy online rather than drive so far. That first surrender to an online purchase was in February, but I vowed to keep trying.
I needed hinges, nails, a doorknob and a few other home-maintenance items. I went to my local hardware store. Wow, depressing. Many of the shelves were bare. I was able to get only a few things on my list. I considered another locally owned hardware store, but succumbed to the sure-thing temptation of Lowe’s.
An uptick in our bank balance sent us to a locally owned kitchen supply store in search of the last-forever stand-up mixer we have coveted for years and been unable to find at estate sales. The $299 price tag was steep. A chain store had it for $254. I know local stores have to charge more to cover their overhead, but the price difference was too much to pass up.
I wanted to patronize some stores in my immediate neighborhood. What a random assortment: a bead shop, a cured meat business, a scrapbooking supply store and a chain loan-sharking outfit that employed a woman dressed as the Statue of Liberty to dance in front of the shopping center during tax season. I admired Liberty’s enthusiasm, but I had no use for these businesses.
Arghhh, clothing. I prefer to buy secondhand, but my husband encouraged me to enhance my wardrobe with some new things. I balked at the boutique prices, so he made a few selections for me. With returns, I could get store credit only within a narrow window. Some of the workmanship was no better than clothing purchased at the mall. Am I supporting a good cause by buying overpriced clothes probably made in sweatshops when I can buy fair trade T-shirts online?
Finally, food. We have always eaten at locally owned restaurants. Our favorites are always packed and don’t need our business. Their recipe for success is simple: The food is good. The servers call us by name and seem glad to see us. It’s no surprise that the restaurants desperate for customers tend to serve mediocre, overpriced food.
I have patronized several fantastic locally owned shops, including a children’s bookstore, a toy store and a gift shop. Although I have resorted to buying things online and even — true confession, Walmart — I search out local options first.
What struck me is how shopping locally often means more than dropping more cash. It can mean sacrificing quality, selection and even customer service. An acquaintance who owns a yarn shop told me today’s customers are too demanding. I’ll try to rein in my expectations.
As with everything about green living, the best choice isn’t always clear. I want my locally owned businesses to thrive in the shadow of Walmart but I can’t take them on as charity cases. They have to earn my business, just like a corporate chain. If they choose not to, they have more than big-box stores and the sputtering economy to blame for their struggles.