Have My Values Been Hamburgled?
Scary, sci-fi drink machines. Just part of McDonald’s charm.
As a small shopper, I know I’m supposed to see McDonald’s as a symbol of everything that’s wrong with big box shopping. And, in a way, I do. They promote unhealthy food and spread disease (obesity, diabetes), all in the name of profit. And, although their policies toward employees aren’t as bad as, say, Walmart’s, they aren’t exactly a thriving career center.
On the other hand, they make a really good biscuit.
The truth is, scary drink machines and unhealthy ingredients aside, I have some really good memories from McDonald’s. Why wouldn’t I? The cookie-cutter decor is virtually unchanged from the place I played as a child, the place that always gave me a treat and a toy; the place my high school boyfriend took me on almost every one of our dates (well, there and the record store); the place I used to meet two of my best friends for breakfast. I hate to admit it, but I find the bland food and the monotonous decor kind of comforting, and I don’t really care that the egg in my biscuit is unnaturally colored, or that my hashbrown resembles a hockey puck more than a potato.
When I visited McDonald’s this weekend to compare it to small shops, I expected to be disgusted by the food and the impersonal service. Instead, I enjoyed my breakfast (even if my body didn’t), and I ran into a former neighbor who joined me for breakfast.
However, while I won’t be boycotting McDonald’s now that my year of buying locally is over, I won’t be frequenting it, either. I may not see McDonald’s as the root of all evil, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see the shoots of evil (horrible chemicals, bad company policy) that sprout up among the Shamrock Shakes and Fishwiches. I’d rather make memories and build familiarity at small shops that support their employees and our community. And, as comforting as fatty, sugary food is, I think it’s a better plan to look for comfort in relationships instead of finding it in french fries.
Starbucks’ New Roast: The Ultimate Blonde Joke
Sri loves his medium roast, locally bought coffee so much he drinks it straight from the carafe! (Okay, not really. But I wouldn’t put it past him.)
I like blogging — this much is probably clear. But I also like inviting friends to collaborate with me, because I love the way a blog can highlight a person’s unique personality and area of expertise. So, when I started a blog for my coffee shop, I knew I wanted to bring Sri Koduri — not only one of the best baristas I’ve ever known, but also one of the best and most interesting people — into the mix. Sri has an unbelievable amount of coffee knowledge, and he has a distinct way of communicating (excessive use of exclamation points is just one of the highlights of reading his work), so I figured he’d be the perfect fit.
Usually, Sri’s posts are funny and informative. But, this week, as he wrote about the introduction of the Starbucks “blonde” roast, there was even more passion behind his words.
The blonde roast is basically a light roast coffee. It’s partly a response to the criticism that Starbucks over-roasts their beans (leading to nicknames like Charbucks), but it’s mostly a strategy to capitalize on the success of local roasters who’ve been creating more medium and light roasts to really show off the character of good coffee. Sri sees this as an attack on local roasters, and he’s not happy. You can read his post by clicking this link, but here’s the note that betrays how strongly he feels:
I felt compelled to discuss the importance of buying local this week as I saw Starbucks launching its new blonde line up of coffees-the milder, brighter side of the flavor profile. I could consider this a direct hit on most coffee roasters who DO NOT roast their coffees to the level Starbucks does. I could also say that this move is probably going to put some coffee shops owned locally out of business, contributing further to our local unemployment rate. I could also say this move doesn’t seem to support Howard Schultz’s initiative of creating jobs because Washington has failed to do so.
Now, I know what most people will say: This is just business. When something succeeds, you have to expect that your competition will steal your idea. This is true, of course, but it’s also one more way big businesses are allowed to step all over small shops. When Starbucks comes out with a new product, they hire lawyers to get all proprietary on it, attacking any small shop that tries to use the same name or the same idea. If you doubt this, just to put “Frappuccino” on your menu, and see if you don’t end up with a Venti-sized lawsuit.
On the other hand, when a small shop comes out with a new product or a new idea, we don’t have the capital to aggressively protect it. So, it’s fair game for a big company with a scary mermaid logo to swoop in and take it our idea and mass market it (some might say destroy it), all in the name of capitalism.
This might be legal, but I agree with Sri that it’s pretty shady. I don’t want to stand in the way of the free market, but I do think the restrictions and freedoms should be at least equal for local shops and corporations. But, as it stands, big business has all the advantages: favorable legislation, lots of money, and a public that routinely chooses discounts over entrepreneurship and innovation.
So, are Sri and I overreacting? Probably — baristas tend to take coffee a little too seriously. But that doesn’t change the fact that the blog he wrote for Church Street today is correct: buying local coffee does good in your local community, and it can even help struggling economies (like the farms in El Salvador ravaged by flooding) recover. All that, and it tastes a lot better than Starbucks, no matter what catchy name they slap on the bags.
Quick Small Shop Stop: Lamb’s Ears
My sister’s in town, so she’s forcing me to do normal-people activities like 1) taking lunch breaks, 2) leaving the coffee shop for more than just sleeping, and 3) having a conversation that’s about more than paperback new releases or the ideal method of brewing coffee … you know, things that I tend to skip as a new business owner.
On our walk back from lunch today, she pulled me into Lamb’s Ears, a home decor shop that I’d never visited before, even though it’s just a few steps away from my coffee shop. The store’s beautiful, and among the gorgeous furniture and tablescapes are lots of fun, inexpensive items that make fantastic gifts for others (or for yourself — we each bought ourselves a journal).
My favorite items, in addition to the journals, were the tiny valentines pictured above (at just $2.50 apiece, they’re actually an inexpensive way to treat all your friends), the iron rose paperweight (that’s saying something, because I usually abhor paperweights), and the spiky turtleshell backpacks (these are a little pricier at $50, but they’re completely amazing).
I love working in an area full of small shops that hold little treasures just waiting for me to stumble upon. I love that Courtenay (my sis) and I had a nice talk with the shopkeeper, and that she made us feel so welcome. Sometimes I get a little jaded about small shopping, but it’s experiences like this that make me realize it doesn’t have to be a sacrifice, but can be a real treat.
Small Shops & Big Chains Make Peace for World Book Night
I love that I get to stand up for small, local shops with Shop Small — but I don’t like that my support can sometimes seem so polarizing. Because there’s such a disparity between how much money the average household puts into big chain stores and how much we spend at local shops, the battle to get more recognition and more money into our small shops and, by extension, into our community, sometimes make our shopping choices seem black and white. Small = good. Big = bad.
It’s easy to think this way, but it’s not always easy (or practical, or cost effective) to live this way. That’s why I think the real answer is to balance our buying between big and little stores. And it’s why it makes me so happy to see corporations partnering with mom and pops to do good in our community and our economy.
Case in point: World Book Night. The idea behind this event is to put books in the hands of people who aren’t usually readers. Yesterday, I visited their website, chose my favorite books from their list (it includes bestselling authors like Suzanne Collins, Jodi Piccoult and Sue Grafton, as well as artists like Patti Smith, Dave Eggers and Maya Angelou), and applied — for free — to be a book giver. If I’m chosen, they’ll send me a box of 20 copies of my favorite book to hand out for free on April 23.
I love this event because it fosters reading and community involvement, two causes that are really important to me. But I also love that it’s sponsored by the American Booksellers Association (a group of mostly local shops) … and by Barnes and Noble. It’s sponsored by the American Library Association and by book publishers. Everyone from the publishers to the authors to big box stores to local shops are funding this project and/or giving up profits to make it happen.
If we as consumers spread out our money a little bit more, buying from local stores as well as corporations, I think we’ll see more of this cooperation. The more power we give to small shops, the more incentive big box stores have to work with them instead of smashing them underfoot. Its projects like these that make me hopeful that we really might be able to foster more of those partnerships.
To register to be a World Book Night giver, click here to fill out a request form. Do it soon, though — the deadline is tomorrow.
Unleash Your Baker/Blogger at …
I’m a big believer in the power of blogs. Sure, people make jokes about bloggers. They disrespect us and laugh at us and wonder why our little missives are so important to us. But there’s something magical about putting your thoughts into words, especially when other people start paying attention. I’ve been repeatedly honored and humbled by my readers’ response to Shop Small, and I know that the readership and community interaction I’ve had from this blog probably wouldn’t have existed, at least not at this level, if I’d published my thoughts in any other medium.
That’s why Food Blog South is so exciting. This event is like a boot camp for bloggers who write, or plan to write, about food. Not only do professional speakers make it inspirational, but the conference teaches some really great techniques for making your blog better (or starting one) — things like how to shoot good food photos (SO tricky), how to use social media to get your blog recognized, and how to network with people who can make our blog more successful.
Food Blog South is this weekend, but you still have a couple of days to register. If you’re thinking about starting a food blog, or if you’ve started one that you want to take to another level, this event would be a great choice. Plus, it’s so local, Alabama residents get 10% off — click here to register with your discount.
Old Habits Die Hard … and So Do Small Ones
These shoes are made for walking … away from big box stores.
I planned to blog about shopping big this month, but I haven’t kept up with it very well. It turns out, I’m not so good at buying from big box stores anymore.
A big part of this is just that, over the past year, I changed a lot of my buying habits. Instead of Whole Foods, I shopped mostly at Western. Instead of heading to CVS, I found independent drug stores. Whenever I wanted to go to Target, I just … okay, there’s really no small shop equivalent of a megastore (at least not in Birmingham), so when I wanted to go to Target I mostly just talked myself out of whatever silly thing (new dress, new stripey socks, new bag that has a picture of a tiny robot on it) I was planning on buying.
As a result, I got used to going to these new places instead of relying on my old big box standards. It turns out, switching back to big box shopping has proved just as difficult as switching to small shopping in the first place. I’m learning that a lot of what I liked about big stores wasn’t necessarily the selection or the convenience, but the familiarity — the idea that I knew exactly what to expect and where to find things. Now that I know how to navigate my small shops, I don’t feel the need to go back.
And, anyway, I’m not doing a very good job of it. Last week, I tried to go to CVS to pick up cold medicine … but Crestline Pharmacy was closer, and I was tired, so I went there instead. And I attempted visits to the Piggly Wiggly several times last week, but each time Western lured me there instead with their siren song of perfect avocados and sweet potatoes. (Seriously, last time I went to Piggly Wiggly I couldn’t find sweet potatoes. I gave up looking after ten minutes.)
To be honest, I don’t regret shopping small in either case. Sam at Crestline Pharmacy is a Shop Small reader (Hi Sam!), Church Street shopper and True Blood fan, so I like supporting his job with my NyQuil purchase. And I was rewarded for my Western loyalty with a visit from the manager, Joe, who stopped into Church Street last week even though it’s out of his way and he doesn’t like coffee, just because he wanted to be supportive.
I’m not saying I don’t sometimes miss the discounts and convenience of big box shops. But I think, if I went back, I’d miss Sam, Joe, and the feeling that I’m doing something good for my community a lot more.
Namaste, Bug Dude
One of my favorite parts of shopping small is finding small businesses that deliver personality and amazing support when they don’t necessarily have to. It’s one thing to find charming service at a local boutique or restaurant — I love that, but I also expect it. But when a local business turns a dreaded chore like hiring a pest control service into the best part of my day, I appreciate it even more.
Enter Paul, our “bug guy” at Church Street. He breaks all conventional stereotypes of an exterminator: He can’t stop talking about yoga; he’s a passionate environmentalist; he’s a frequent book buyer. (My favorite of his purchases? The Poisoner’s Handbook.)
Most importantly, he does his job well. I’ve worked at the same location when we hired a big box company to do the same job, and his results are better. And he’s not content to simply spray away problems, seeing his job as important to the health of our planet as well as of our employees and customers. “Pest control is about protecting the environment as well as the home,” his website reads. And he’s serious about that, always letting us know about new, natural methods of prevention — I’ve never seen someone so excited about Borax.
We don’t hire Paul because he’s a nice guy, because he’s a bit of a treehugger, or even because he’s local. We hire him because he gets results and his prices are good. But the fact that he brings humanity and real dedication to his work, the fact that we can trust him to do his job and also enjoy his company, makes him a great example of what shopping small is all about.
Is The Edge’s Silver Screen Getting Tarnished?
Semi-creepy claw games … one of the benefits of seeing a movie at The Edge.
I want to like The Edge Theater. They’re local, I love their mission (basically to bring quality movies to neighborhoods that wouldn’t otherwise have them), and they sell beer, which honestly could come in handy during not-so-great movies.
But lately, it seems like most of the buzz I hear about The Edge is bad. They didn’t carry the movies I most wanted to see during the holidays (and I really could’ve used some booze during the surprisingly creepy and depressing Young Adult). When my friends Cal and Heather went to see Sherlock Holmes, the theater shut down in the middle of the movie because of some sort of mob involving local teenagers who swarmed the lobby. And, last week, I saw a Facebook update from a friend saying that the lights wouldn’t go down during her movie because The Edge had purchased the wrong light bulbs.
I love going to the movies, but, in the age of big screens and Blue-ray, theaters need to step up the experience in order to make leaving the house worth it. Rave Theaters seem to do a pretty good job at this, with their plush seating and clean theaters. But it seems like The Edge and Carmike Cinemas don’t, with too few employees, dirty lobbies and bathrooms, and theater temperatures that run too hot or too cold. When you take the magic out of the movies, what do you have? Thirty minutes of previews, way too many Bod Man Fragrance commercials, and a nearly fifteen dollar price tag for barely two hours of entertainment.
I do want to give The Edge another chance — or maybe a few more chances. I know it’s hard to run a business, and they seem to have had some bad luck over the past few months … I’m not so sure I’d know how to deal with an angry mob without shutting my business down, either.
I just hope it doesn’t take them too long to figure out how to run a theater that I can visit because I want to, not just because I feel like I should.
Field Research: Shopping Big at Anthropologie
Cute reading glasses? Sure. Fifty dollars cute? No way.
I used to be a sucker for Anthropologie’s world-traveler-sprinkled-with-pixie-dust look, and they were once my go-to stop for a new cardigan or a dress to wear to a wedding. Sure, I mostly bought from their sale room, and it didn’t hurt that I got a considerable discount since my sister used to work at their sister store, Urban Outfitters. I knew I was still paying more than I should’ve, and that some of the clothes aren’t really well put together (I’ve had a sleeve fall off more than one cardigan within two weeks of purchase), but everything in the shop was just so pretty that I was willing to look past those little things.
This week, I took a train to visit my friend Elisa in New Orleans. We walked and rode the street car from one end of the city to the other, stopping every hour or so in local cafes, bars, parks and bookshops. So I didn’t feel bad making a short stop at Anthropologie, which we passed by as we walked to the river.*
All year, I’ve missed finding little treasures at Anthropologie, and I was secretly rationalizing a post-Shop Small splurge before we even walked through the doors. But, when we walked through the shop, I was mostly just disappointed. The prices, already too high last year, seem to have actually risen during the recession — I didn’t see a single top for under $100, the two purses I liked were nearly $500, and the plastic reading glasses Elisa and I tried on, not much different $2 drugstore pairs, cost $50.
Basically, the faux bohemian aesthetic seemed really forced, and the prices were kind of stupid. I don’t mind paying more when it supports my community, or when employees get health insurance, or when the products are made in America. But, although Anthropologie has a collected-from-a-market feel, its business practices are no better than any other big box store’s. Far from supporting their employees, they treat them like potential shoplifters, checking their bags when they leave and come to work (Urban Outfitters does this, too). And, though I’ve seen many Made in Malaysia/China/Indonesia tags, I can’t remember seeing a single one stamped U.S.A.
I’m not saying I’ll never go back to Anthropologie, or that anyone should feel bad for shopping there. And I do like the commitment to local artists shown in their in-store decorations. But, for me, the bloom has fallen off the rose a bit, and that I’d rather shop consignment for my purchases. I’ll think twice before I head to The Summit for a sparkly new cardigan and a hefty credit card bill.
* At least I think it was on the way to the river. I’m awful with directions and the whole thing’s gotten a bit jumbled now.
Last winter it was snowing, I hadn’t lost my favorite gloves yet … and I had no idea what I was in for with a year of shopping small.
Today is the last official day of my Shop Small project. A year ago tonight, I was soaking up the last few big box shopping experiences that I planned to abstain from for the rest of the year. I had dinner at Mellow Mushroom, coffee at Starbucks, and I went to The Summit to catch a late showing of Harry Potter at the Carmike. At midnight, I was toasting 2011 on my neighbor’s porch with a bottle of Prosecco.
Since then, a lot has changed in my life. In addition to completing my Shop Small project, I quit my writing job and opened an independent business, Church Street Coffee & Books, which has been so demanding that I’ve spent most of this New Year’s Eve trying to rest up from the draining holiday retail season. Through my intense first months as an entrepreneur, Shop Small has been rewarding and surprising. It’s been a challenge, an adventure, and something to hold onto through the ups and downs of my year.
The biggest surprises? How easy it was to Shop Small, and how inexpensive. Buying locally required a shift in my habits, but not the rehaul I was expecting. And I’ve spent less money than I have in the past decade, simply by making my purchases with purpose instead of by impulse. I was also shocked by the community’s response. To my amazement, this little blog has thousands of readers, and I’ve met so many people, both Shop Small readers and people who’ve never heard of it, who’ve made commitments to buy local.
I’m often asked if I’ll keep the project going after tonight. The answer is yes … and no. I plan to continue this blog through January to chronicle my return to big box shopping. I’m wondering what my impression of places like Target, Chipotle and Anthopologie — places I loved to shop before — will be, now that I’ve largely avoided them for a year. But I don’t think I’ll be able to go back to shopping exclusively, or even predominately, at chain stores. I’ve realized how important local shops are to local economies, and I’ve experienced how much more they have to offer than impersonal big box stores.
Shop Small has undoubtedly changed my life, most notably because it gave me the push I needed to start my own independent business. But the point of the project wasn’t to stand on a soapbox. My goal was to see if buying primarily locally was possible, if it was practical, and if it could be simple. I’m happy to report that it is all three.
I have been incredibly grateful for and humbled by the response Shop Small has had from my community and from my readers. Thank you for your support, your criticism and your partnership on this experiment. And I have to specifically thank Morgan Trinker for brilliant photography and unflagging support, Elisa Munoz for laughing with me through our podcast and answering all my late-night phone calls, and Clair McLafferty for being a pinch hitter and writing a few key posts when I was overloaded.
See you in 2012.