Editorial: Why the Decision to Shop Locally Should Be More Than Just a Good Intention

I’ve lived in Carbondale for more than ten years, and have seen a lot of changes take place in that
Brian Wilson

 

I’ve lived in Carbondale for more than ten years, and have seen a lot of changes take place in that time. Some of these have been the natural economic changes that are expected to occur in a small university community during a period of time. Stores and restaurants open and close, their success dependent upon how suited they are to the needs of the area. But lately it seems like we’re losing a lot more local places than usual.

I see this as being due to at least two major factors. One of these is the popularity of chain establishments, a problem that has faced the community and the country at large since the rise of fast-food restaurants and big-box stores several decades ago. We’re lucky enough to live in a town that offers a wide variety of local eateries. But drive past the shopping district on any given weekend and the chain restaurants are all packed to the brim while some of the local places sit almost empty. We’ve already seen a number of important local eateries close within the past few months, places like El Bajio, and the Mississippi Flyway (and too many duplicates of chain restaurants, like Subway, Long John Silver’s, and Wendy’s, who have built brand-new buildings right next to their old ones). These were restaurants that weren’t carbon-copy duplicates of some chain whose corporate office is located in California. They were unique, and each brought something important to Carbondale’s culture. We need more places like this and more customers who care to support them.

Our community also seems like it’s been taken over by chain stores that specialize in sporting goods, pet supplies, office supplies, books, hobby and crafting supplies, as well as big-box stores that sell all of these things under one roof. But for almost every one of these categories, there is a local alternative. People just need to make the effort to find them. When I moved to Carbondale in 2002 there were two main used bookstores, Book Worm and Book World, and a great little alternative bookstore called Rosetta Stone (which also served espresso and had a great selection of foreign and independent videos for rent). Now the only one that remains is Book Worm. This trend of losing locally owned stores is continuing at a steady rate. P-Mac Music is closing its doors after fourteen years in the area (another victim of the iTunes generation), and My Favorite Toys is now forced to keep its physical store closed aside from one weekend a month and holidays.

For the first time in the history of the world we are also facing a much bigger problem: This is the first era in which we are seeing stores close down in direct reaction to the rise of online shopping. With everyone drunk on technological trends and obsessed with getting the latest version of whichever gadget will allow them to do the same things they could do before but slightly faster, it’s a little scary how little attention is being paid to the ways in which our actions online are affecting the physical world around us. By taking our business online, we are taking it out of the community. Often it is being given to corporations whose business exists solely online. They have no storefront, no sales people, and thus little overhead. Because of this, goods available online will almost always be cheaper than those in traditional stores. But we have to remember what the economic repercussions are for our community when we opt to get a book through Amazon rather than Book Worm, or a CD through iTunes rather than Plaza Records. We also have to remember that in doing this, we’re essentially taking steps to replace our physical infrastructure with a digital one, a potentially disastrous move for local communities.

When I worked at a certain well-known chain bookstore in the area a few years ago, customers often responded to my offer to order a book we didn’t carry by saying, “No thanks, I can order it cheaper online myself anyway.” My response to this would usually be a sardonic comment like, “Yeah, and someday we’ll all just sit around in sterile white rooms and order everything online because there’ll be no stores.” I half hid this response in the guise of a joke, and most people acted like they didn’t know what to make of it before they buried their face again in their iPhones and hurried off. One woman, however, not only agreed with me but changed her mind and ordered the book at the store because she said she didn’t want to see stores disappear.

Ask anyone why they prefer to eat fast food, shop at the chain stores, or shop online, and the answer is almost always because it’s cheap, fast, and easy. There are certainly occasions when a person can’t afford to eat out or must make every effort to make sure their dollar goes as far as it can. But this can and should be accomplished by patronizing quality local establishments. We can’t base a culture that hopes to sustain itself on the concepts of cheap, fast, and easy. There is no future in that.

People sometimes make the argument that chain stores bring in jobs, and on the surface this may be true. But think about how many jobs they’ve taken away by destroying locally owned businesses, places that would have employed those same people but kept the money within the community instead of making it for a corporation with no ties to the area.

Each time we buy from a chain store, shop online, or shop locally, we are casting our vote to support one of those systems. If you buy all of your music from iTunes or all of your books from Amazon, then it’s unfair for you to bemoan the loss of local stores that offer those things right now. We each have the power to change the way things are headed, but that will involve pulling out heads out of the Cloud and keeping our eyes on what’s really important.