The Localist Excerpt

The following passage is excerpted from the beginning of The Localist book.

Let’s get this out of the way at the beginning: I’m not here to shame anybody. I’ve been pretty committed to shopping locally for about four years. I’m writing a book about it. That means America’s small shops are important to me, but it doesn’t mean I think they’re perfect or that corporations are always bad. I like to save money and time as much as anybody else, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

I don’t shop at Wal-Mart, but that doesn’t mean I’m not tempted by those smiley-face-emblazoned falling prices. I’m not particularly lazy or selfish (maybe that’s debatable), but I love walking into a mall, feeling the rush of the air-conditioned and perfumed air, and thinking the answer to my problems just might be at the other end of a credit card swipe. It feels like Target, Anthropologie and Whole Foods really “get” me, and shopping there makes me feel happy. Maybe that feeling is shallow, but sometimes a temporary thrill is better than nothing.

Enjoying the benefits of big box shopping isn’t anything to feel guilty about; those reasons we hear for shopping locally — “mom-and-pops are nicer, small shops have better service, we miss the good old days of Main Street and Mayberry” — don’t even turn out to be true much of the time. We aren’t Mayberry, but we shouldn’t be (our world isn’t perfect, but America is at least less overtly racist and misogynistic than it was when Sheriff Andy was in charge). We love convenience, and we love saving money. We like that corporations can make us feel included and special. Are there reasons to choose independents over corporations? Spoiler alert: I think there are. But the idea that small shops are heroic and corporations are evil isn’t one of those reasons.

We hear a lot of rhetoric saying that local shops are more authentic than big box stores, but what does that even mean? If corporations are better at giving us what we want, maybe that actually makes them more authentic than the indies. The world has changed: Technology has made speed not only a possibility but an expectation. A recession has left us with less expendable income. We like the way big box stores echo these changes: It’s nice to be able to pull off the interstate at any given Burger King and know exactly what to order and where to pee. It’s predictable. It’s comfortable. It’s kind of impersonal (even most “personal” service in big box stores is scripted), but sometimes that’s exactly what we’re looking for. We’re so unused to making conversation with strangers, to giving up our personal space and our personal time for someone else, that it’s become a difficult thing to do. And we don’t want to make that kind of sacrifice just to get a quick hamburger (or fifty quick hamburgers, if we’re shopping from Costco). Connection is uncomfortable, and corporations don’t force us to connect through anything but our debit cards and (maybe our smartphones). We are known, not by our names, but by our customer numbers. Yes, that corporate model can be anonymous and monotonous, but sometimes monotony is comforting. While it’s true that the big boxes can be soulless, that doesn’t mean they have to be or that they always are.

Why do we pass up independently owned shops in favor of their corporate counterparts? One common explanation is that we just don’t understand what they have to offer. (Personal service is the big talking point here.) Yes, independents have personal service, but maybe that’s not what we’re looking for anymore. Maybe the efficiency and affordability of big box stores is what we want, and not what we settle for. It could be that the personal touch we’re supposed to be missing is the very thing we’re avoiding.

The idea that many “good ol’ days” proponents teach — that Americans are lazy and selfish, and that liberals or conservatives or young people or rap music or Miley Cyrus or whatever the punching-bag-of-the-week happens to be — have ruined our country is too simplistic to be true. It’s also hypocritical — I’m willing to bet most of us like Wal-Mart, at least on some level, even if we don’t want to admit it. (At least, I know that I do.) Besides being reductive and judgmental, this idea is also counter-productive: Guilt might make us feel bad, but it won’t change our buying patterns.

As a nation, we shop differently than we used to, but that’s because our world is different. From small shops to big businesses, from our local economies to the global economy, from Mars to our backyards, our lives have changed, and our ideas about small business haven’t caught up with that. We might feel a pang of guilt when we see yet another “going out of business” sign in the window of a local shop, but we still don’t stop, because our guilt about not shopping small is mostly nostalgia — that memory of Mayberry with its soda shops and friendly community chats. But our culture has changed, and we don’t walk whistling through the streets anymore, lazily swinging fishing poles over our shoulders. We’re driving. We’re busy. Why slowly sip a milkshake before heading to a fishing hole when you can get a McFlurry and a Filet-O-Fish from McDonald’s in a fraction of the time? We usually don’t know our neighbors, much less our grocers and bankers and baristas.

I may prioritize neighborhood shopping, but I like speed, dependability, affordability and anonymity as much as the next American. I like going into a store and knowing everything will probably be just where I want it to be, and that every employee will be helpful and (relatively) kind without asking the same from me in return. Is that selfish? Well, yeah. But our modern attitude isn’t necessarily bad (well, the not knowing our neighbors bit is probably bad). It’s a response to how incredibly busy our lives have become, how stressed we feel, and how each one of us is constantly pulled in so many different directions by obligation and responsibility. After a long day chasing the elusive end of our to-do lists, the last thing we want to give time and attention to is getting dinner, running errands and going shopping, so it’s easier to choose a store where we can do everything all at once.

We have a vague idea that small shops are charming, that somehow small business is the backbone of the economy: that we should be shopping at mom-and-pop stores. But if that nagging feeling doesn’t have facts supporting it, it’s not a basis for true conviction or change. Remember Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio? He was a singing bug with a waistcoat, and he tried to get his puppet buddy to stop lying by listening to his conscience and doing what was right. Jiminy Cricket was tiny, a little bit shrill and, well, a bug. He didn’t inspire change that was deep, ethical and truly right. Most of our conviction about small shopping is based on antiquated ideas and is too much like our cricket friend — silly, small, and easily tuned out.

Carrie Rollwagen

Carrie produces and hosts several podcasts. She’s author of the Localist book, co-founder of Church Street Coffee & Books and VP of Infomedia.

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