Kris and I live in a small, quiet neighborhood south of Portland. When the trolley line ran through here — between 1893 and 1959 — Oak Grove was actually thriving community, with shops and stores and more. (It’s true! I’ve seen pictures!) Now, though, downtown Oak Grove, such as it is, consists of a convenience store, a hair salon, a joint once named “the best dive bar in Portland” — and the home office of Get Rich Slowly.

There’s also another business in downtown Oak Grove: a small coffee shop that opened a couple of years ago. It struggled a little at first, but eventually business picked up, and it’s become a valuable part of our community. In fact, Kris and I think of the Oak Grove Coffeehouse as the only real hub our area has.

But there’s a problem. This summer hasn’t been kind to the Oak Grove Coffeehouse. The business is struggling. Jason, the owner, has been forced to cut back hours. He’s waiting for classes to resume at the nearby high school in hopes that the teachers and students will bring a cash infusion. But for now, things look grim. Here’s a recent Facebook post:

The Oak Grove Coffeehouse needs your love!

I’ll admit that I haven’t been supporting the coffee shop as much as I used to. Kris stops in once or twice a week on her way to work, but I’ve cut it out of my budget for both fitness and frugality reasons. (I’m living the latte factor!)

Why I buy local
Still, I feel passionately that small businesses are vital to the success of a community. It’s probably because my family has owned many small businesses in the past, but I do my best to support Mom and Pop operations whenever possible, and I try to avoid national chains of all types.

  • I’ve always joined local gyms instead of national chains.
  • Kris and I almost always choose local restaurants instead of national chains.
  • I prefer small, independent bookstores to national chains. (Except that I use Amazon a lot, thus proving my hypocrisy.)
  • Whenever possible, I choose independent movie theaters instead of the national chains. (I loathe big chain theaters.)
  • I try to use small barber shops instead of national chains.
  • When we lived in a small town, we used a small, local grocery store instead of a national chain. We don’t have that option now unless we want to drive 20 minutes.
  • I use a local credit union instead of a national bank.
  • Kris and I have never really had an auto mechanic, but she’s just started taking her car to the place around the corner.
  • And so on.

When it comes to local businesses, I try to put my money where my mouth is. I vote with my dollars. Why do I buy local? For a lot of reasons, including:

  • I believe that small, locally-owned businesses give character to a community. They improve its quality of life. Yes, every Starbucks you walk into is the same, and this makes a lot of people comfortable. But I like that independent coffee shops (or record stores or comic shops or bookstores) have a unique feel. I like that Flying Pie pizza is unique, and not just the same homogenous stuff you can get from Domino’s or Pizza Hut.
  • I believe that buying local products from local merchants fosters community by enriching my neighbors, by supporting their endeavors. I’ve written a lot about the importance of social capital — mutual goodwill — and frequenting local businesses is a great way to strengthen social bonds.
  • Small, locally-owned businesses are more likely to keep the money they earn in the community; it’s not siphoned off to the corporate offices in Akron, Ohio. And local businesses are more likely to use local suppliers. I’ve never found a local product at our nearby Safeway, for instance, but the local produce stand has fruits and vegetables from around our area. (They even had a bunch of Kris’s currants for sale recently!)
Note: I found many internet claims that “local businesses return about 80% of each dollar to their community”, while chains remove about 80% of each dollar from the community. This sounds compelling, but I can’t find actual research to back up the claim, so I’m skeptical. This page cites studies about the economic impact of local vs. national. So does this one.

There are indeed times that I’ll eat or shop at a national chain, but if I have a choice, I’ll almost always opt for local. Yes, there usually is. (Though not always.) But the cost differential isn’t great. Even when I was digging out of debt, I was willing to pay extra to buy local. I considered a sort of “community tax” — a surcharge I paid to keep the local area vibrant and strong. That’s important to me, so I’m willing to pay a little extra to make it happen.

Not everyone feels the same way, of course.

The opposition speaks
Kris and I hosted the annual Roth family reunion last Saturday. It was a smallish gathering (only about 20 adults and 10 kids), but it was lively. Roths can be rambunctious, and we’re not afraid to debate with each other.

Over our sausages and sauerkraut, somehow the conversation turned to supporting local businesses. I forget why the subject came up, but it’s not surprising:

  • My family owns a business that makes boxes in Portland.
  • My cousin Ted is an artist who makes baskets and furniture.
  • My cousin Bob has a company that builds granite countertops.
  • My cousin Tammy runs a tutoring business out of her home.
  • And my youngest brother is trying to get his own business off the ground.

As you might expect, because there are a lot of small businesses in my family, there’s a lot of “buy local” sentiment. But not everyone feels that way. During our rowdy conversation, Tammy made it clear that she’d rather shop at Wal-Mart than at her neighborhood stores.

“Oh, come on,” said Tammy’s brother, Ben. “There are people here from all sorts of political backgrounds, but I think there are two things we can all agree on: Monsanto is evil, and you shouldn’t shop at Wal-Mart.”

“Why shouldn’t I shop at Wal-Mart?” Tammy asked. “The stuff is cheap, and I don’t have a lot of money to spend.”

The argument discussion continued for several minutes: Tammy vs. the rest of the Roths. When Tammy learned that her brother Ted lives 2-1/2 hours from the nearest Wal-Mart, she was appalled. “I would not like that,” she said. “Where do you get your groceries?”

“Just the local store in town,” Ted said.

“And you’re paying through the nose, right?” said Tammy.

My brother Jeff jumped in: “But he’s supporting a local business, supporting the local economy. If local business isn’t supported…”

“Well,” said Tammy, interrupting. “Think what you want. I’m just not that into the local economy.”

Tammy has some valid points. National chains are successful for a reason. They’re cheap, they’re widely available, and they’re familiar. You know what you’re going to get and how much you’re going to pay. You know how the system works. Working with local businesses can sometimes be…interesting.

Shop Baker
Why shop local first? Click the image to view a larger version.

Do YOU buy local?
Family bickering aside, the debate over the importance of buying local occasionally gets debated in communities across the U.S. Last week, for instance, USA Today posted an article about towns trying to block chain restaurants in order to preserve character and protect local businesses.

I was curious what GRS readers thought, so last week I polled my Twitter followers and the folks at the ever-growing GRS Facebook page. I asked, “Do you go out of your way to support small businesses in your neighborhood? Why or why not?” Here are some of the responses:

  • Michele Gilhouse wrote: I go out of my way to support local business because I want my neighbors and community to prosper. At times I know I pay more, but it doesn’t bother me.
  • Jane Cny wrote: Yes, I support local businesses and have made a conscious decision to increase my support, including moving my money to a local back. I have been unemployed for over a year, and my dentist, my hairdresser and my dry cleaner have all lowered their prices for me to support me during a tough time. I can’t imagine a big business doing this. You can bet these people will continue to get my business!
  • Cheryl Estridge wrote: I try too, but I also price shop and buy only from places that are offer the same goods for less $$$$. I won’t spend more money just to support a local business.
  • Melissa Bush wrote: I prefer local stores, and when it comes to food and housewares it’s pretty easy to avoid chains. Clothing is a different story. Chains have too much buying power to let a small clothing store selling new clothing.
  • Shari Theroux wrote: I try very hard to buy local whenever I can. Being a small town, though, I can’t always find what I need here and have to either travel or buy online.
  • Janell Adamczyk wrote: Miss the days of the local shops – like when I was growing up in Chicago. You had almost all you needed down the street or a short bus ride away.

Most of the folks who responded on Twitter and Facebook try to support local stores over national chains, but a few do so with reservations. They’re wary of paying higher prices, and some have had horrible service experiences. (National chains usually have quality standards that keep service uniformly good.)

Conclusion
Let me make one thing clear: I don’t condemn anyone who does not or cannot buy local. I’m an ardent supporter of small businesses, and I hope that you will be too, but I’m not going to say you’re wrong if you have good reasons for shopping elsewhere.

All things being equal, I suspect most people would choose to buy local. But each of us has a different price at which local is no longer an option. For some, this point is immediate: they’ll always buy the cheapest option, regardless of other factors. Others — and I know a few like this — will buy local no matter the cost.

So where does my zealous support of local businesses leave me with regards to the Oak Grove Coffeehouse? What about the latte factor? What about my diet? I’ve made some compromises.

Twice a week for the past two weeks, I’ve walked up to the store on my way to the office. I buy a Mexican Coke and a cinnamon roll. (I don’t actually like coffee.) Now, I know that my $8 per week isn’t going to keep the place in business. But I hope that it helps a little.

Meanwhile, I’m just exercising a little harder to burn off those extra calories…

This article is about Choices, Consumerism, Economics, Shopping