The Localist examines the benefits of shopping local and the detriments of shopping at corporate stores. Carrie Rollwagen spent a year buying local (defined as stores and shops owned and operated in the state of Alabama). The book is light on statistics, which the author admits she finds boring, and instead focuses heavily on the personal. Rollwagen writes about the effects shopping local v. corporate has on the consumer, the community, and the workers who produce and sell us our goods.
The author connects the isolation we feel in our modern lives with the ease and convenience of shopping at big box stores. We can shop and rarely be bothered by other people, and at some stores we can even checkout without a human cashier. Buying online makes it even easier to avoid human contact. The items we buy and the money we spend are out attempts to fill in the emptiness and loneliness of our lives. This same sense of isolation is what keeps us shopping corporate because we think that as an individual we cannot make a difference. That big box store will never notice if we decide to spend $40 at a locally owned store. Shopping local helps connect us to our community and the people in it helping to alleviate our isolation and making us realize it can be nice having non-virtual friends. Shopping local benefits the community as well. One of the few statistics in the book is eye popping. For every $10 spent at a corporate store $1 – $3 stays in the community, but that same $10 spent at a locally own business means $4 – $7 stays in the community. This means more dollars to support education, infrastructure, cultural centers, and parks and playgrounds. All of which make the community a better place to live.
Many people do not buy at locally owned stores because they think it is too expensive. Rollwagen found that buying local was not at all expensive, and she explains in great detail the true costs of (slightly) less expensive goods in corporate stores. Stores want to make profits, and in order to sell things cheaply and quickly and turn a profit requires the stores to cut costs in other areas. One way big box stores keep costs down is through lower quality merchandise. Those cheap DVD players and steak knife sets will probably only last a few years. Corporate stores also hold down costs by treating their employees poorly. Retail employees at big box stores are rarely paid a living wage (Many employees of large corporate and fast food chains are on public assistance even though they work full-time.) and usually do not receive benefits. In addition, much of the merchandise sold in these stores is made overseas by factory workers in slave like conditions or in some cases actual slavery. The dominance of corporate giants reduces competition leading to a monopoly and further labor abuses and limits what we can buy and how. Rollwagen also does a great job of explaining optimal product placement for impulse buying. So even though you got a great deal on that flat screen TV, you still spent more than the original cost on DVDs, candy, and a new TV stand.
Rollwagen is sometimes too idealistic when it comes to local shopping. Her assertion local stores always provide good service I have found is not true. The book started as a blog, and that is evident in some redundancy throughout the text. Her chapter on faith and money seemed a bit out of place, but she is from Alabama. Rollwagen, a college educated, middle class woman, does not address what role privilege plays in lifestyle choices like only shopping locally. While the local scene varies depending on your city, it can also vary depending on where you live in that city. Residents of lower socio-economic areas of the city may not have the same access to local stores as those who live in re-gentrified areas, and their budgets may be so tight that the little extra money they would spend locally might be enough to bust them for the month.
When I started reading The Localist I was skeptical I could shop local and find everything I need where I live. Rollwagen’s definition of local as statewide means I can still shop at Publix, and her advice to “shop localish” – make small changes and do what you can when you can – was inspiring and helpful. My biggest obstacle to shopping local was Rollwagen’s too, but in the exact opposite way. While the author does not like shopping for clothes, I am a clothes horse. Rollwagen found she buy clothes at thrift stores, which is not an option for me. I will continue to buy clothes from trusted online retailers until I live in an area where I can buy bespoke clothes (and have enough money to afford them).
Overall, Rollwagen has written a passionate, well-thought out book on the benefits of shopping local. If nothing else, this book does a great job of reminding us of the true costs of our cheaply made, quickly delivered goods. No matter where you live this book is a great read to help you understand the political and economic realities of 2015 America.
Available from The Bitter Southerner.