The local stores help keep our money in the economy
by Anne Pyburn Craig
“Main Street is dead,” wrote Russell Baker in 1984. “Dead as the Bijou Theatre with double-feature programs that changed three times a week.” Happily for us all, Baker’s declaration was premature. In the Hudson Valley, Main Street has come a long way back since then—and the holiday season’s a great time to come on out and see for yourself.
Wherever you live in the Mid-Hudson, you’re within an hour or so of at least one downtown zone with indie retailers. Wandering one or more of these on an autumn afternoon looking for unique treats for the people you love and finishing up with a nice bite to eat or a drink is a blast; you’ll be reminded all over again of why the Hudson Valley keeps winning all those awards and being “discovered” over and over. From Phoenicia to Beacon, retail is practiced as an art.
According to the US Department of Labor, every square foot that a local firm occupies brings the local economy $179 versus $105 for a chain store. Communities with thriving downtowns see a solid gain in property values. And the jobs created when local businesses thrive tend to be life-enhancing in ways that being an “associate” in a mega-corporation could never be.
Re>Think Local—a nonprofit collaborative of locally owned independent businesses, artists, farmers and nonprofits—is surveying indie business owners in an attempt to get a clearer picture of just what kind of impact they’re having on our local economy, and the results should be interesting. “We don’t know the Hudson Valley statistics yet, but we do know if people spend their money at locally owned independent businesses those dollars will circulate 300% more before they leave the community,” says executive director Ajax Greene. That’s just part of what Re>Think describes as the “triple bottom line” of social, environmental and economic benefits that communities reap when local businesses thrive.
Anecdotal evidence that the Hudson Valley is doing better at this than many places is easy to find. Portals like VISITvortex.com and HudsonValleyGoodStuff.com list dozens upon dozens of businesses and have thousands of Facebook friends and website hits. “I get six to eight thousand visitors a month and have 3,800 followers on Facebook,” says Vanessa Ahern, who started Hudson Valley Good Stuff in 2009 by blogging about her favorite local places. “I think interest in shopping local has grown since I moved up here in 2003. It’s helped along by events like First Fridays in Saugerties and Woodstock Nights, when local businesses come together with special events and strive to make shopping a wonderful experience.”
Saugerties, although it has long supported antique shops and a few special places like Krause’s Chocolates, would hardly have qualified as a shopping mecca a few years ago. “When I first came here there was a lot of turnover, a lot of vacant storefronts,” says Daisy Kramer Bolle, a second-generation indie shop owner and proprietress of DIG boutique. “Then when HITS started doing horse shows here and Diamond Mills Hotel and Tavern opened up, it was a huge boost to the local economy. It’s wonderful to have the kind of critical mass where local merchants themselves also shop locally, putting food on each other’s tables.”
To thrive locally, it helps to think globally. “We do sell online and on Amazon,” says Bolle, “and we ship to lots of people who discovered us as tourists. I have customers who insist that they can’t find the level of service and quality we offer in all of New York City—objectively, that can’t be the literal truth. But we do strive really hard to make every woman who comes in feel fabulous. We build relationships and keep the customers in mind when buying. It’s about pursuing every avenue and hopefully it pays off. Making it through the winter months as a small local business is no joke.”
Elizabeth Bloom opened Soiled Doves about seven years ago in Rosendale, selling “addictively curated junk.” Her sense of style, honed over a 30-year career in design, has won her a faithful core of customers. Despite a complete lack of conventional advertising (Bloom is as likely to post “cat show” videos of her furry roomies as pictures of her latest wares) Soiled Doves has been a hit from the start, and Bloom seems mildly surprised to find herself becoming a job creator—she’s considering an assistant to keep the shop open more.
“I got a great response from the get-go,” says Bloom. “My hours are wildly irregular, and it’s all been word of mouth and people just stumbling over me. I only buy stuff I absolutely love, and something about my taste seems to resonate with the 20- to 40-year-old demographic.”
Resonant taste and creative place making are important—both Saugerties and Rosendale have managed to hang onto their local theaters, as have Woodstock and Rhinebeck; studies have identified an independent downtown theater as a key factor in a Main Street’s success—along with the grit and passion of entrepreneurs like Bolle and Bloom. “Do what you love and spell luck w-o-r-k,” is Bloom’s advice to aspiring shopkeepers.
Such success stories may not be hard to find in our neighborhood, but neither are areas that are still struggling with a plague of empty storefronts. At the macro level, there is much work to be done to build well-rounded and vibrant economies. According to a study cited by independentwestand.org: “If independent businesses regained their 1990 market shares, it would create 200,000 new small businesses, generate nearly $300 billion in revenues, and employ more than 1.6 million American workers.”
Working against this desirable outcome are entrenched structural factors. “We need a national campaign for a level playing field,” noted researcher Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “Governments provide billions of dollars a year in subsidies and tax advantages for the biggest companies. Most people have only a dim idea of the degree to which this goes on. They assume that local businesses are failing because they can’t compete, but, to a large extent, it’s because the game is rigged.”
Part of the explanation for the Hudson Valley’s relative strength may be found in the ongoing efforts of big-picture folks like Mid Hudson Pattern for Progress, a nonprofit that’s been working since 1965 to study and enhance interwoven factors such as government efficiency, education, and housing solutions. According to March Gallagher, who recently joined MHPfP as deputy to its president and CEO, shopping locally happens at the business-to-business level too—a key factor in keeping dollars in town. “Our chambers of commerce do a great job at their level,” she says. “When it comes to major public investments in areas like semiconductors, it can be hard to measure or tell what is being locally sourced—but it’s more than most people realize, because we have a lot of supply chain vendors that worked with IBM and Kodak. We toured Global Foundries (a semiconductor company that’s expanding its Saratoga County manufacturing operations) with a group of local CEOs, and people were saying, ‘Hey, that’s our equipment!’ There are things being sourced locally that people aren’t aware of.”
Gallagher cites collaborations between businesses like Community Playthings and Viking Industries and points to the formation of local food hubs as the kind of thing that needs to happen more. She also says that the Fortune 500 and Main Street can and should work together: “Local independent suppliers can find out about large government contracts, but a lot of private-sector sourcing is driven by personal contact—networking. When you make the connections personally and not coercively, good stuff can happen.”
With the holidays upon us, it’s the perfect time to get out and celebrate the vibrancy that our area has managed to regain and retain. This month and next, local shopkeepers will be spit-shined and working long hours to offer you stunning service and creative selection—the kind of retail therapy you just can’t get at the mall. Oh sure, you’ll miss all the fun of waiting in endless lines and forgetting where you parked your car, and you probably won’t get to witness fistfights over this year’s equivalent of Tickle Me Elmo. But that seems a small price to pay for subverting the dominant paradigm and helping keep the lights on.
While you’re gloating over how much your loved ones will enjoy the quirk and quality of the genius-level gifts they’ll be getting, spare a thought for the big-picture folks working to keep it growing. “We’re much more powerful as citizens than we are as consumers,” says Mitchell. “Corporations know this, which is why they are always talking about us and positioning us as consumers, while weakening our authority as citizens. We need to reclaim our citizenship and start advancing change not just in terms of buying locally or even investing locally, but in joining with our friends and neighbors to remake public policy.”