As I travel up the East Coast talking about The Localist, there’s one question I’m getting over and over from the owners of local shops: “Why didn’t you talk about politics?” I got the question from Eric Levin of Criminal Records in Atlanta. I got it last night from the owner of Zora, the coffee shop located inside Pomegranate Books. I got it in New Orleans from a business owner who stopped me on the sidewalk.
Many local businesspeople think our law and our political system are the root of what’s wrong with American business — and they have a good point. When I started really studying localism, I was shocked at how our laws protect big business and attack the little guys. Zoning laws are slanted in their favor. Tax breaks are slanted in their favor. Labor law is slanted in their favor. They’re invited to be a part of the political conversation, and we’re not. They throw millions in lobbying money at politicians to influence laws, and we can’t. All the way up the political ladder, from state government to the Supreme Court, corporations have a lot more influence over the government that small shops do. (Sadly, they have a lot more influence than individuals do, too.)
I don’t ignore this in the book, of course. I touch on zoning laws and political greed and the devastating Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case. But these shop owners are right in saying that I don’t really attack the problem head-on.
That’s not because I don’t think it’s important. It’s incredibly important, but it’s such a big problem that I don’t yet understand it, and I didn’t want to write about something I don’t completely understand. The facts and theories I included in The Localist are ones I’ve researched and tested over years of my life, and I 100% stand behind them. I just wasn’t at the same place with my political research.
But the bigger reason I focused on changing local buying at an individual level instead of a political one is that I honestly believe individual buying has power — and it has more potential for change in our country than reforming our political system. Lots of shop owners disagree with me, and I understand their point of view and respect it: They’re right in saying purchasing changes won’t solve the whole problem, but I think they’re the start we need to get the ball rolling on creating real change and rewriting some of our horribly broken laws. I believe that if we as consumers start showing our politicians that we value local stores by buying from them, they’ll pay attention. After all, political attention goes where the money goes, and we decide where the money goes every time we swipe our credit cards.
This week, I’m headed to the heart of our political system — the Localist Train Tour takes me to Washington D.C. with a book signing at One More Page Books (Thursday at 7 p.m. in Arlington, Virginia). Maybe I’ll learn something more about politics. Maybe I’ll finally feel ready to tackle that side of localism. But I know for sure that I’ll be able to talk to people about shopping small, and I’ll be able to buy a book and a coffee and support small shops while I’m there. That’s important because politics isn’t just about the polls. We vote every day with our money and our time and our choices — those votes are important, too, and I’ll be proud to make mine in D.C. this Thursday.
Carrie Rollwagen is author of The Localist: Think Independent, Buy Local and Reclaim the American Dream and co-founder of Church Street Coffee & Books. Find her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @crollwagen.