When I was a kid, Edgemont was a shopping mecca, and not just because you could walk there from my house. There was a grocery, a drugstore, a hardware store, a bakery with a screen door, even what was called then a five-and-dime. It was neighborhood shopping in the literal sense of the phrase, and if you needed something larger, you could always hop on a bus and patronize the big department stores downtown.
If you’re interested in shopping the way it used to be, Tim Hollis wrote the book on it: Birmingham’s Theatre and Retail District, a tome to make you nostalgic for the days when Birmingham actually had such a thing. If you’re interested in the way we shop today, it’s Carrie Rollwagen’s book you’ll want to read. It’s entitled The Localist, and it’s essentially a 21st century consumer’s guide to consuming.
Followers of that antique construction called the blog may remember one of Carrie’s that ran under the name Shop Small. It was the journal of an experiment in which she spent a year buying — or trying to buy — only merchandise purveyed by locally owned stores. Out of that undertaking came The Localist, an extended exploration of what’s involved in supporting capitalism on a non-corporate level.
Just what is localism? “I feel like being a localist means shopping local-ish,” the author explains. “I feel like mostly we shop big-box stores first, and only go to locals when we happen upon them. We should flip-flop our thinking, find out more about local stores, try to promote them and shop from them first, and only shop big-box as a last resort.”
As an owner of a local store, the independent bookseller Church Street Coffee and Books, Carrie might seem to be selfishly interested in keeping you out of corporate entities such as Barnes and Noble. She is, instead, quite sanguine about the charms of shopping with the devil. She acknowledges that the big stores offer convenience, large inventories and even a gratifying emotional distance with their transactions. (“I don’t always like walking into a locally owned shop and feeling like I have to chat with the shop owners,” she asserts candidly in the book.)
There are penalties attached to all the discounts and service shoppers crave from corporate entities, both in town and online. Corporations, beholden to shareholders’ profits first and foremost, often play fast and loose with the welfare of their workers, not to mention the environment of the places in which they operate. Then there’s the frequently negligible financial advantage to communities anxious to have the big-box stores within their city limits. All too often, incentives and tax breaks offered to entice a Wal-Mart or a Target installation result in zero revenues for city coffers. “If local governments took their money and incentives and gave them to local businesses instead, the effect would be bigger and better for local communities in the long run,” Carrie writes. According to her calculations, when you spend $10 at Wal-Mart, only $1 to $3 makes its way back into your neighborhood, your city or your state. By contrast, $10 spent with a local retailer recirculates $4 to $6 back into the local economy.
It might be easy to mistake this sort of thinking for what President Business in The Lego Movie calls “hippy-dippy baloney.” Indeed, when Carrie was chronicling her Shop Small adventure, she was sometimes assailed for writing a liberal blog. “This was a blog about changing the world through capitalism,” she says. “How was this liberal?” A Kansas native, Carrie was raised with a clear understanding of the GOP’s prime directives, which may be why she is able to affirm that “the kind of system that we have in this country now is more like socialism for big businesses.”
Carrie used a recent capitalistic innovation to help bring about The Localist, raising more than $8,000 on Kickstarter from 179 backers. “The money was helpful, for sure,” she said, “but I really used Kickstarter to help build interest in the book.” She found that comment on social media accompanying the fundraising campaign actually contributed to awareness of the finished product.
Carrie is also using Kickstarter money to fund an ambitious book tour, from New Orleans to New York. The route of the tour is no accident, since that’s also the route her favorite Amtrak train, the Crescent, describes up the Eastern Seaboard. “I wrote a lot of the book on trains,” she said. With a rail pass, the author will be able to stop over along the way in book-loving cities to host signing events. (She will be signing at The Little Professor in Homewood this Friday, but that may not necessitate a full-on whistle stop.)
The Localist is by no means a dry economic treatise. Carrie has infused her advocacy with parentheses and pop culture references, not to mention tales of her many adventures in business, as a barista and a book clerk as well as a customer and a CEO. It is a small volume, as befits one who shops small, but there are rather big ideas enclosed. And, yes, it would fit nicely in a Christmas stocking.
With seasonal consumer mania underway, Carrie hopes many people will follow her lead and patronize area stores. She admits it can be hard to get started and she will not shame you if you wind up you-know-where: “Telling people, because you shop at Wal-Mart you’re a bad person is a mistake and it’s not true.”
Naturally, Carrie Rollwagen will not be in line at big-box stores looking for Christmas presents, but not just for economic reasons. “I’ve found that when I shop locally for my gifts, I think more about the person and the reason we give gifts,” she says. “A good gift says I see you as a person and I value you and here’s why. That’s hard to find at the mall.”