Like the Austin Independent Business Alliance, begun by Steve Bercu, co-owner of BookPeople, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, many early shop-local initiatives were started to keep Borders out. In Austin, Borders’s attempt to move across the street from Bercu’s store also led him to enlist Dan Houston and his strategic planning consultancy Civic Economics for their now classic study, in 2002, of BookPeople, Waterloo Records, and Borders, which showed for the first time the economic impact of the chains: for every $100 a customer spends, the local economy gets $13 back from a chain store, compared to $45, from a local merchant. Although Borders is gone, Barnes & Noble continues to hold on to a large slice of the bookselling pie. With Amazon poised to reach Wal-Mart proportions by the end of this decade, according to Stacy Mitchell, senior researcher with the New Rules Project of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and the e-book onslaught, can shopping local turn the tide?
“The jury is still out whether [buy local] will make a difference in the landscape. But I’m more optimistic than I was five or 10 years ago,” says Mitchell. She cites a general awareness of buy local that didn’t exist before, as well as studies like the 2011 Community Preference Survey conducted by the National Association of Realtors, which shows that 77% of those polled would rather live in a neighborhood with stores and businesses within walking distance. Her holiday research for the past four years for ILSR indicates that local businesses in communities with buy-local campaigns like AIBA have significantly more growth than those without. The next hurdle Mitchell sees is getting customers to understand that there is a local alternative to shopping on Amazon at 2 a.m.
Susie Wilmer, co-owner of 32-year-old Old Firehouse Books in Fort Collins, Colo., saw how effective shopping local can be when her store was selected for Be Local Northern Colorado’s February Plaid Mob event. “Everybody’s encouraged to spend $10 between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday” that month, explains Wilmer, who got more than four times her usual sales for the same time period and day of the week. Later this spring she will partner with the library on a mob giveaway, for which she is donating ARCs.
In New England, the regional booksellers association has given away $35,000 in seed money over the past five years to 14 organizations to start local first organizations. “NEIBA very purposefully set about putting money back in the hands of booksellers to make a difference in their communities,” says executive director Steve Fischer. “Part of its mission is supporting healthy local business environments, and we have seen stores that are early recipients of the grants make a difference.”
Although booksellers have made gains, they still need to be vigilant. Betsy Burton, owner of the King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City and co-chair of Local First Utah, says, “People love their community, if they stop and think. It’s so important.” But she finds that to make a difference the key elements are “Education, education, education, and PR, PR, PR.” Bercu calls educational efforts “endless” in a community like Austin, which has a large transient population. But, he notes, he no longer needs to find a way to get the city council’s attention; now council members contact him. Earlier this month, Bercu presented the council with a 10-page local business manifesto to get help in promoting shopping in locally owned stores. Still, he says, he would like to come up with the shop-local equivalent of the antilittering slogan, Don’t Mess with Texas. “I’d like people to feel that same twinge of guilt when they shop at a chain store,” he says.
David Bolduc, owner of Boulder Book Store in Boulder, Colo., and cofounder with Jeff Milchen of the country’s first local first organization, the Boulder Independent Business Alliance, is not so sure that “local” makes a difference. “I still have these conversations with people in the store on taxes, the vitality of the community, and not to take us for granted. The message has become so common. Even Whole Foods has signs saying, ‘We’re local,’” he points out. In addition, he thinks that e-books have changed the book-buying equation. “I know so many people who used to be good customers. I don’t see them anymore. It’s not like I’m giving up,” says Bolduc. “But I’m making T-shirts and I run conferences, too. So I’m not dependent on books.”
Even newer bookstore owners like Lanora Haradon, who opened Next Chapter Bookshop on Milwaukee’s North Shore three years ago, question the value of pushing consumers to shop local. “I have found that I have to be careful with the local first message. Customers do not like to be made to feel guilty for their shopping habits,” she says. “This is why I like the positive message of the Here’s What You Just Did flyers that the IndieBound folks put together.” As to whether shopping local boosts sales, she adds, “[It’s] just one piece of the puzzle for our customers. If I don’t have the rest of what they want, they won’t come back, regardless of how local I am.”