Following up on the message of the new localism, which was first introduced at Winter Institute in January and then brought to each of the bookselling regions at the American Booksellers Association Spring Forums, Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, gave an inspiring plenary on “Meeting the New Localism Challenge: Protecting and Promoting Communities and Local Economies.”
Mitchell lived up to the introduction by ABA president Betsy Burton, owner of The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, who referred to her as the “Joan of Arc,” of the localism movement. She detailed why booksellers need to build on the success of the shop-local movement and take it to the next level: new localism involves more than just getting people to shop local, but also reaching out to elected officials and affecting policy changes.
“Localism is on people’s minds in a way it wasn’t ten years ago,” Mitchell said. Looking back over the past dozen years, since BEA was last in Chicago, she pointed to achievements like the 660 new independent bookstores opened since 2009, the 21% growth in farmers markets, and the growth of independent coffee shops at one and a half times the rate of Starbucks.
“People are not only buying locally, they are investing locally,” Mitchell added, pointing to examples like the Northeast Investment Cooperative in Minneapolis, which bought two buildings in the downtown business area and built them out to bring in local businesses. Cleveland has passed a local purchasing preference, which has resulted in 39% of the city's purchases being made locally, up 29% from five years ago. In Phoenix, an adaptive reuse program for local business led to more than 90 entrepreneurs starting businesses in vacant spaces. In San Francisco, one of the few cities without a Barnes & Noble, policy restricts the ability of chains to open in neighborhoods.Other cities are looking at doing something similar, including New Orleans and Charleston, S.C.
Noting that this month is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Mitchell talked about “the small, seemingly insignificant incidents that are the foundation of neighborhoods and democracy.” As an example, she pointed to Jacobs’s research indicating that those who survived the 1999 Chicago heat wave that killed so many people did so because they lived in neighborhoods where people knew each other. “If you shop locally, you get to live in a much more personal and connected world,” she said.
“The corner stores, the local bookstores are really cornerstones,” Mitchell said. The challenge, she continued, is how make localism central to the conversation at a time when Amazon is the largest retailer in the country and emerging as the gatekeeper to the online market. Today, nearly half of all people start their online search at Amazon. In the past two years, taxpayers have given Amazon $430 million to build warehouses. Pointing to the Civic Economics study released at Winter Institute about Amazon’s affect on local economies, Mitchell noted that as Amazon has grown, it’s eliminated more jobs than it’s created.
To push the localism movement forward, Mitchell advocated a return to a more entrepreneurial economy, where small and mid-sized company can thrive. She also called for a better-defined and articulated localist policy, one that revives antitrust policy. She also spoke for expanding access to credit for local businesses, changing zoning codes to create walkable neighborhoods, as well as building programs like one begun in Salt Lake that enable small businesses to buy their buildings. “We need to invest in a new generation of entrepreneurs,” Mitchell said. But most of all, she said, “We need to engage with customers. We need to talk with them more about Amazon and engage with them as advocates.”
While much of the information Mitchell presented may not necessarily be new, it was the accretion of the data that she offered to back up what she said and the way she said it that made a difference. Plus, as Gillian Kohli, owner of Wellesley Books in Wellesley, Mass., noted, “The more I hear it, the better I can articulate it.”