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Enrich thy neighbor

'Buy local' and take care of business
By JULIA RAPPAPORT  |  December 12, 2008

DOWNRIGHT NEIGHBORLY: The weekly arts and crafts boutique Design Hive encourages local talent to market their wares close to home.

This is how I imagine Main Street at the North Pole right about now. Mom and Pop elves dash from store to store in a scramble to finish their holiday shopping. They load up on knickknacks and tchochkies (assuming there are Jewish elves in the community) from the locally owned Santa's Workshop. There are no chain stores here. At the top of the world, hard-earned dollars are spent in neighborhood stores, whose store owners then spend and invest them with other local businesses.

Perhaps that's why Santa's Village isn't going through a recession.

Back here in the temperate zone, the local and national economies are in the crapper. Big businesses such as Circuit City, Tweeter, and Linens-N-Things are closing their doors; to save gas, city dwellers have stopped driving to the malls out in Burlington, Natick, and Leominster. The only upside of this downturn is that shoppers are returning to their neighborhood stores.

And just in the nick of time. Boston may yet end up looking a bit like the Pole of my imagination this December. Minus the Jewish elves.

After a sluggish 2007 holiday spending season, the national Independent Business Forum (IBF) surveyed local businesses in all 50 states and in Washington, DC. Despite news that local businesses are hardest hit when the economy stalls, the businesses surveyed reported steady earnings. Some showed even modest gains.

With a decidedly gloomier year-end shopping picture projected for 2008, that news provides at least a glimmer of hope to Boston-area businesses and communities. "This is really an opportunity for small downtowns to recapture that market that kind of went out of style because people were busy, had no time to build relationships, and could find better deals at the chain stores," says Christopher Ryan, the man otherwise known as the Localizer.

By day, Ryan is the director of planning and development for the town of Ayer (population 6871). He lives in nearby Concord where, he says, he plans to do most of his holiday spending this year. "Last year, we were buying things like sleeping bags and camping equipment from the mall," he says. "This year, there's a store in West Concord that we'll go to. It's a little more expensive than places like EMS [itself once a local business —ed.], but dealing with your local merchant is important in building up your local economy." On his blog, Ryan advocates buying locally made goods and produce, creating local businesses, and localizing energy production.

(He also recommends using local currency such as BerkShares, the barter-like instrument of commerce circulating in the Southern Berkshires, but one glance at is enough to know this idea isn't coming to Boston any time soon.)

According to the IBF study, locally owned businesses have held relatively steady for two reasons: paranoid and cash-strapped spenders want to keep their money close to home and various Buy Local campaigns have raised public awareness of the benefits of supporting hometown enterprises. (Local First campaigns have recently been launched in Cambridge, Roslindale, and Worcester.)

A few weeks ago, Jody Colley, publisher of the Berkeley, California–based East Bay Express, decided to tap into the consumer market and boost her local economy. She placed an ad in the Express asking readers to pledge to spend $100 of their shopping money at locally owned stores. In exchange, readers are entered to win $1000 in gift certificates to area merchants and restaurants.

"This is the scariest holiday season that many of us probably remember," Colley says. "We're facing the perfect storm for a really bad holiday season."

Colley got the idea for her promotion after reading the Andersonville Study of Retail Economics, a 2004 report prepared by the Civic Economics consulting group and the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce, which represents a revitalized neighborhood on Chicago's North Side. That survey concluded that if a Chicago resident spent $100 at locally owned businesses, $68 stayed in the city's economy. That's as opposed to $43 for every $100 spent at a chain-store outlet.

When Colley crunched those figures against the Express's weekly circulation, she found that if all her readers honored the pledge, they'd keep an additional estimated $3.7 million in the Berkeley area. Colley pushed her agenda on other newspapers across the country and, as of press time, 79 publications, including the three editions of the Phoenix, agreed to run the ad. If everyone counted in the BostonPhoenix readership made and kept the pledge, an estimated $3.9 million that otherwise would have gone off to some remote corporate headquarters would stay in Metro Boston.

"Dealing with your local merchant is incredibly important to building a local economy," says Ryan. "If you're circulating your money within your community, there's no more leakage." Ah, leakage, the unfortunate economic term for money that leaves a community when local shoppers buy non-local goods or services.

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  Topics: Lifestyle Features , Andersonville Study of Retail Economics , Burlington , Christopher Ryan ,  More more >
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