To Debbie, With Love.

You know that scene in every disaster movie where that one alert guy who was ignored in the first act is finally vindicated when the volcano explodes or the boat sinks or Samuel L. Jackson gets eaten by a shark? Well, lately, I’ve been feeling a lot like that guy. While I’ve yet to save the life of the inexplicably gorgeous scientist who will then fall madly in love with me (I’m sure that will happen any day now), I have been feeling particularly righteous for another reason.

I returned to Rutland last summer to spend some time wandering in the desert of post-collegiate existential despair (read, unemployment). This being my second extended stay in the area since graduating high school (a friend likens Rutland to the island from Lost: “some people aren’t meant to leave”), I knew the importance of keeping myself busy. I also felt the need to give something back. Was it my growing sense of civic pride or the dearth of content in the “Volunteer” section of my résumé? We may never know for sure. The important thing is, I decided to get involved. So I found an issue that I could get behind: Localism.

In recent years, the push for buying local has been steadily gaining strength. Vermont has always championed this ethic, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The idea of supporting local business is nothing new to me. (Full disclosure: My family has owned and operated the Palms Restaurant in Rutland since 1933 so it goes without saying that I have some strong opinions).

In a society where small town culture is rapidly being eroded by corporate strong-arming and Internet instant-gratification, it is important for people to stand up in support of local economies. The encroachment of box stores and the homogenous, pre-fab lifestyle they promote speaks to a deeper existential threat facing our society. Americans have abandoned their sense of experimentation and adventure. We thrive on consistency and sameness while eschewing the thrill of a new experience. Why buy your clothes at a local boutique when you can get a six-pack of jeans at Costco for $9.99? To be fair, those jeans do have elastic waistbands.

Some time last year, I was at my family’s restaurant, when a customer—let’s call her “Debbie”—approached my father and I to lament the lack of quality eating establishments in our community. “We need a good family restaurant, like an Outback Steakhouse?” she suggested as if their signature Bloomin’ Onion could amazingly solve all Rutland’s problems in some kind of deep fried gestalt.

With all the courtesy I could muster, I reminded Debbie that she was in fact, at that very moment, dining in a “quality family restaurant.” I informed her that in the past, the opening of a plastic restaurant typically meant the closing of an independent one. I asked her why, in such a small community, would she not want to give the local guys a chance.

“Oh, you’re one of those buy local people?” she asked with McCarthy-like derision.
“You’re eating in a restaurant, which my family has run for over seventy years,” I said, “Yeah, I’m one of those ‘buy local people.’”

It was at this point that Debbie ended our conversation by pretending to answer her cell phone.
The lesson is clear: When you eat out, don’t tick off the help. If you do, you’d best not order from the tiramisu.

The other reason I mention this encounter is because Debbie represents an ideology that must be overcome if local economies are going to thrive. Money spent in the community stays in the community. When you spend $100 in a box store, only $14 stays in town compared to the $45 in local spending generated when you buy from a locally-owned business. That’s something we all should think about the next time we choose a box store over a local one. To be sure, shopping at the boxes is inevitable; there are some products that cannot be purchased anywhere else. But when there is a choice, think local first.
As we Americans have increasingly lost our confidence in the federal government’s ability to provide for and protect us, the shift to local and regional dependence has become inevitable. The goal of this column is not to preach to the choir nor is it a bully pulpit for me to guilt you into buying local (though, as a once and future Catholic, I know the effectiveness of some well-placed guilt). Rather, it is a chance for discussion, education, and reflection on issues of localism.

Indeed, there are naysayers. But as the cost of goods and fuel continues to skyrocket, their tired strains have become less convincing. In many ways, our nation is at the beginning of a major paradigm shift. Locally, we are a long way from reaching our goals, and we can’t do it alone. It will take the commitment of the entire community.

So as “one of those buy local people” concludes the inaugural edition of this new column about localism, I can’t help but think of Debbie. I wonder if she ever found her bloomin’ onion.

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