My Secret to Buying Dresses? Shop for Pants.

My new dress proves that “putting a bird on it” isn’t always a bad idea.

Doing Shop Small has been a great exercise of actually paying attention to what’s in the stores all around me, since I can be a little dense about noticing my surroundings unless I’m paying special attention. (One day in high school, I asked my sister when they built the new bank at the corner of our street. She looked at me like I was nuts and answered, “Five years ago.”)

Anyway, on one of my Columbus-esque expeditions around Mountain Brook, I stopped in a strange-sounding shop called The Pants Store. With the exception of jeans, I don’t wear a lot of pants. Maybe it has to do with attending an uber-conservative high school that taught me that any woman who wears pants is a super-slut feminist bent on single-handedly destroying the American family.* Or maybe I’m just a lazy dresser and I find it easier to choose one dress than two matching pieces of clothing. The point is, the name “Pants Store” never seemed particularly enticing.

But, in the spirit of discovery (and because I glimpsed a cardigan sale through the window), I finally went in — and discovered lots of cute dresses, skirts and shirts, as well as great books and a little bit of jewelry. None of it was dirt-cheap, but it was all really reasonably priced, and I walked to the dressing room with an arm full of outfits. (I walked out of the shop with only two, proving I am an amazingly disciplined, saint-like example of self-restraint.)

Lots of people have asked me where to buy clothes locally. There are tons of fantastic boutiques in Birmingham, but I find them a bit intimidating. Turns out, The Pants Store, which started as a warehouse full of pants in Leeds, is more approachable than your average boutique, but they still have a very strong selection (click here for a photo gallery including a butterfly shirt that would make a great birthday gift for your favorite blogger, hint-hint). Plus, I like the irony in telling people I got my new dress from a store named after pants.

* Wondering who votes for Santorum? It’s these people.

Bottletree: Good for Bands, Good for Birmingham

Fantastic local band Persons playing at Bottletree last December. They’re also playing Bottletree this Thursday.

My Facebook and Twitter feeds have been blowing up with this article about Bottletree, and how it could do great things for the bigger Birmingham business community.

There are lots of ways we can hope to stimulate more growth in Birmingham. We can try to pass legislation. We can build baseball stadiums downtown. We can fund more parks, throw more festivals, be more dedicated to keeping our city clean and safe. These are all great ideas.

But we sometimes forget that strong, unique businesses can also attract new businesses, because they help establish new markets and show that innovative thinking and a commitment to doing things the right way can pay off. We forget that prioritizing people as well as profits (as Bottletree has, by treating both their customers and their bands well) is a strong business strategy. Most of all, I think we forget that art, whether it be paintings, photography, movies, music or books, is an essential part of who we are as human beings, and that a commitment to protecting art and artists can actually promote city growth.

Thanks to everyone at Bottletree for doing your jobs so well, even when the task seemed thankless. I hope all the retweets, reposts and blogs you see today show you how much your work means to all of us, both for our city’s future and for Birmingham today.

What Will You Make with Your Money?

My business partner, Cal, and I were working behind the bar today when we overheard a couple of women blatantly planning to get book ideas from us and buy the books from Amazon later. When this kind of thing happens, my reaction is usually to shoot the offending customers piercing looks and tweet about how mad I’m getting. But Cal just shook his head sadly and said, “Don’t they understand you’re creating something with your purchasing? Why not create something beautiful?”

This simple statement blew me away: We’re creating something with our purchases. I love the idea that shopping can actually be an act of building, instead of just an exercise in acquisition. That our wallets can be paint brushes on the canvas of our communities, bringing about a picture that’s beautiful and unique.

What are we creating with our purchases? We can build communities that have the money to improve education, fix roads and make our lives more full … or we can create wealth in other states, or other countries, that will never make its way back to our neighborhoods. We can create jobs for our neighbors, our we can use our dollars to create inhumane working conditions by supporting companies that outsource their labor. We can create more room for innovation and invention, and build unique and authentic shopping communities, or we can buy from big box stores and fill the world with more monotony.

I hope we all start to realize that, when we spend money, we’re more than consumers. We’re urban planners. We’re innovators. We’re artists, and, when we go shopping, we have the ability to make something beautiful.

Happy Mardi Gras!

Carnival season culminates today with Fat Tuesday, a time to enjoy your favorite treats one last time before giving them up for the Lenten season. I have a confession to make about Lent — I’ve never really observed it religiously (I grew up Baptist, and we’re not really that into sacrifice*), but I often do give up something during this time of fasting. I think it’s worthwhile to remind myself that life is about more than the junk (food and otherwise) that I sometimes use to distract myself.

This Lent, why not try giving up big box shopping? It might be cheating a little, since it’s not actually a very big sacrifice — you’ll actually be treating yourself to great food and fantastic shopping that we have available locally. But it would do a lot of good in our community, and it might help set some habits for small shopping that would have an impact even after Lent is over. And shopping locally certainly supports community programs and the shopkeepers who work hard to serve us every day. To me, at least, a decision to help people is a change that can have significant spiritual impact.

If you’re not planning on observing Lent, it’s still fun to get into the spirit of feasting by celebrating Fat Tuesday, and there are lots of local places to do just that. Have lunch at El Barrio, cupcakes from Dreamcakes, treat yourself to dinner at Bettola, or visit one of the many restaurants and shops that have versions of traditional Louisiana or Mardi Gras food like gumbo, crawfish and King Cakes.

Happy Mardi Gras — and happy small shopping!

* Don’t get mad at me, Baptist friends. This is a joke. Kind of.

The Bag Lady

Since I’m shopping big now, I had my sister give me a ride to Target last week. She made lots of fun of me because she said I was like a woman on a mission, buying all the things I’ve been waiting a year to pick up. My favorite lotion (Yes to Carrots brand)? Check. New makeup bag with tiny little cosmetics to put inside (I lost my last one in October)? Check. New belt? Got it.

Of course, I also picked up plenty of stuff that I didn’t need. Why buy one dress when they’re so cheap I could buy two? And who cares if that black purse wasn’t exactly what I needed — my old purse broke in November, and this one was only $8. I’ll take it!

Well, I should’ve thought twice on that last one. This is the problem with superstores and me: I always buy more than I have on my list, and I talk myself into buying things I don’t like or need because they’re inexpensive.

I’ll admit, I love my new dresses (I’m wearing one in this hastily taken pic). But the black purse was way too shiny (I mean, mirror-shiny … what’s the deal with that?), and I can only fit one book at a time inside. ONE book? I need at least one fiction and one non-fiction choice at all times, thank-you-very-much. Also, this new purse doesn’t go inside my Vespa, quite inconvenient when it rains (I have to wear it under my raincoat and look like The Hunchback of Notre-Church-Street).

Shopping at locally owned Charm this weekend, I found a much better black purse that actually holds all my stuff (I know because the owner, Chatham, let me empty my purse into it to make sure my mini-library fit inside). It also rides comfortably in my Vespa seat, and it’s a million times (approximate value) cuter than the one I got from Target.

Plus, it turns out my coworker, Jenna, had bought the same Target purse that I did, but in a much better looking (and less shiny) brown. Hers was bound for the thrift store, so she gave it to me instead. I ended up getting three purses for the price of two (or one and a half — that Target bag was certainly cheap), and a few life lessons, too: 1) shopping at Target will always cost me more money unless I learn to resist impulse buys (unlikely). 2) Target purses (and dresses) will fall apart and likely be bound for the thrift store sooner than a quality item would. And 3) never buy a purse you can check your reflection in. All in all, not bad for a day of shopping, both big and small.

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.