This afternoon the Empress Larkin and I went to the mainland to shop at Costco, setting a new personal record for both expense ($463.71) and weight (didn’t weigh it but the four cases of pop were not even half the total). Back on Whidbey we passed a sign that says “Shop the Rock”, exhorting all good islanders to spend their money with local merchants. I didn’t feel guilty, but it caused me to reflect on what “shop locally” might mean to different people.
Although I have absolutely no sense of patriotism, even consider it an evil influence and a mental health problem, I do believe in supporting my community. Part of this is for purely selfish reasons. It makes for a more pleasant community if the local businesses are making enough money to live reasonably. While I buy most electronic components on-line, I intentionally overpay at the local Radio Shack in hopes that they will always be there. (Of course I only buy one over-priced video cable there, I normally buy four or five on-line for about the same total price. But sometimes I need one – now.)
Sunday afternoon is not the best time to go to Costco, it’s a zoo. It’s an experience that would, to most people, shriek “evil national big-box store”, the very antithesis of shopping local. Except I got a Costco membership within two months of their opening the very first store (sorry, “member warehouse”) on 4th Avenue South. That was five miles away by the shortest route, six by the fastest. To me, shopping at Costco will always be shopping locally.
Millions of avid readers (readers in general, not my readers) deplore the changes in the book industry. To most of them, the absolute epitome of evil is Amazon. Yes, it’s true that local booksellers worldwide are having a hard time. Even Borders Group, with 175 Waldenbooks stores and 511 Borders superstores, went bankrupt in the face of the changes Amazon has led. But back in 1994, there weren’t a lot of us on the internet so a cheeky little outfit setting out to take on Barnes & Noble, Borders, Crown Books (also gone), B. Dalton (ditto), and the rest of the meatspace book retailers was something of a hometown boy setting out to fight the world and we cheered. Doubly so for me as it was a hometown boy twice, once for being on the internet and once for being based at Seattle.
When it comes to local businesses being swamped by huge international chains of stores the very first thought probably turns to McDonalds with over 34,000 stores worldwide, starting from just one in 1940 and really getting started in 1955. But the Starbucks juggernaut may be even more reviled for their 12,000+ US outlets and almost 21,000 worldwide. Right, big time trouble from out of town. But from 1971 to 1976, Starbucks didn’t brew coffee to serve, they just always had samples available. They were at 2000 Western Avenue at the time, I was at 2414 Western Avenue and frequently stopped in on my stroll to the Pike Place Market. I knew those guys. So even though I don’t often drink coffee (heresy, I know, for a Seattleite), Starbucks is local as far as I’m concerned.
On the other hand, Bill Boeing started his company south of town in 1916 and many of us have been cheering the brand ever since. “If it ain’t Boeing, I ain’t going!” has been seen on bumpers, T-shirts, and coffee mugs for decades. I’ll probably go to my grave with a certain feeling of loyalty to the company (I did work there briefly, oddly enough in the finance department, and I did some emergency short-run label work for them in the ’70s) but they are going out of their way to take themselves outside my sense of local. They moved their corporate headquarters to Chicago, arguably so management would lose it’s problematic sense of responsibility to the community that nurtured them. They bemoan the actions of the unions that represent their employees, even though those unions are exactly the organizations created by Boeing management’s tactics over the years. They setup a competing non-union operation at Charleston, South Carolina. Now they’ve announced that they’re whacking 1500 IT jobs in the next year, moving the work to less-expensive locations around the country.
So what is local? What is your community? What obligations do we have to our community? Significant questions that I’ve only recently focused on. But it will probably help me to realize that I will be shopping locally in ways that most people will consider anything but. If I Were King, anything in my realm would, by definition, be local. Until then, it’s a bit more complex.