Fear Not the Red Pen: The Joys of Being Edited


It takes a village to write a book. When I picture “a writer,” I see someone sitting behind a typewriter alone, slurping out of a big cup of coffee, looking frazzled. In some ways, it’s true — as I write this blog, I’m sitting alone behind the computer, drinking my first cup of coffee. And I pretty much always look frazzled.

But although I’m starting this day (and most days) alone at my desk, I don’t really work alone. At least, not when my work is best. Most writers, including me, are hugely improved by editors (and proofreaders, and fact-checkers).

For my blogs, I don’t have an editor (unless you count the emails I get from my mom when I use a comma incorrectly). The mini-essays that make up a blog are casual, and best when they’re fresh, so it’s not really practical to hire an editor. Sometimes, that’s fine, and my brilliant wit comes through anyway. Sometimes, I could’ve used an editor, if only to cut out phrases like “my brilliant wit.”

So when I decided to self-publish The Localist, a book based on this blog, I knew I’d need an editor. Writing a book has turned out to be incredibly different than writing blogs, and it’s proved much more difficult for me to hang onto a narrative thread through a couple hundred pages than it is to hold it through a few blog paragraphs. Could I publish The Localist without an editor? Sure. It would, technically, still be readable (I do make my living as a writer, after all).  But that’s not the best choice, either for me or for my readers. I want this book to be the best it can be, and that means I need another perspective, more insight, and a serious critical look at my book.

I got that hard look this weekend when my editor (and fellow former independent bookseller), Bobby Watson, met me at The Garage for an hours-long session of picking through my latest draft page-by-page. Bobby’s edits were insightful and smart, and he did a really brilliant job of helping me shape the book without losing my voice or changing what I’m really trying to say. Our session left me with a lot more work to do, but I’m happy to do it because it will make the book better. (Well, I’m kind of happy to do it. Edits aren’t exactly fun, even when they’re necessary.)

I do like writing alone at a desk. But — and this is weird for me, a hard-core introvert, to say — I like collaborating even more. When you can work with an editor or a co-writer or a team that really gets what you’re trying to do, who is smart, and who brings a lot of creativity to the table, you get a sort of magic that’s difficult to find on your own. I found this kind of alchemy with Bobby, and I know The Localist book will be better for it.

This is what I’ve found really beautiful about the process of creating this book — the fact that it’s not just mine. It belongs to over 100 people who have already contributed money to the book’s Kickstarter campaign, and who’ve helped spread the word to others through social media. It belongs to Bobby, who gave me great insights and ideas to make the writing better, and to the designer who’ll make the book look great on your shelf or coffee table, and to the web designer who’ll create the companion blog.

I absolutely love the fact that this book, a story that’s all about community, already has a community of support. To all you who’ve contributed to the Kickstarter, thank you so much for being a part of it. And to those who haven’t and want to, click here to watch a silly video of me and contribute. Then read this post again and enjoy the warm-and-fuzzy feelings of knowing you really are a critical part of making this book happen — even if you never picked up a red pen.

Boycott Black Friday

Yes, this is really how I sleep, with my hand raised (Am I dreaming about answering a question in school? Probably.) and my hair around my head like a mountain lion. Now you know.

Congratulations, everyone — this weekend, you can take a stand for social justice, just by sleeping in. Oh, and you’ll also be helping your local economy. And the national economy. And you’ll probably take a lot less stress off your family, and be taking a stand against materialism. All by skipping Black Friday.

I know, Black Friday offers good deals or whatever. But think about where those deals come from. Here’s the thing: If you’re offered huge savings, it’s your responsibility to ask yourself why, and to decide if that’s really worth it. If the price is so low it seems like a steal, it probably is — but just who are you stealing from?

You’re not stealing from the corporate retailer. They’ll make up their loss with all the other crap you’re going to impulse buy when you’re in line at the register. You’re stealing from Americans who lost their jobs to outsourced labor. You’re stealing dignity from the people in China and other countries who actually do make your products, because in most cases the labor costs are kept low because the companies are mistreating employees. Your TV is cheap because the people who made it aren’t allowed to watch television, because they’re not allowed to go home at the end of the day. That’s not melodrama. That’s a fact.

But let’s go closer to home. In many cases, the employees at the stores where you’re shopping don’t get health care or a living wage. Employees at Walmart are striking on Black Friday because they’re so mistreated. There’s a lot of debate over this strike, which is at least partially instigated by unions, and whether or not that’s right — I’m not sure if unions are the answer, but I do know there’s a serious problem that needs to be addressed somehow, and Walmart isn’t going to address it until they’re forced to. In my opinion, not even the walk-out will make them to deal with their problems. What will? When we start refusing to buy from retailers who prioritize low prices over human decency or over our own economic growth.

And even when the issues aren’t that serious, Black Friday is pretty terrible for anyone who works at a retail store. Skipping out on Black Friday when you work at a mall or a big chain store usually means losing your job, so employees who have family out of town can’t spend Thanksgiving at home, since they have to report back to work at midnight in most cases. If you’ve ever worked retail on Black Friday, you know that it generally epitomizes the worst of the human condition — there’s a lot of desperation, a lot of inconsideration, and a lot of greed. Basically the opposite of everything the holidays are supposed to stand for.

Several of my friends say they need to shop Black Friday because they can’t afford Christmas otherwise. Oh please. These aren’t basic necessities we’re talking about. Nobody’s offering doorbuster savings on beans or canned soup. You’re standing in line so your kid can have not only a princess doll, but also all her accessories. So your son can get a game system and six games instead of two. I’m not saying that’s all that terrible, but it is terrible to pretend you’re doing it for the economy, or for your budget, or for any other reason than you want to own more stuff.

Do I think you’re a horrible person if you shop Black Friday? No. Some of my best friends are Black Friday shoppers, and I love them and think they’re wonderful. But I do think they may not be totally aware of what their choices mean for other people.

So I’m proposing you boycott Black Friday. Stay in your pajamas, sleep in, and spend the last few hours of all-too-rare family time with your family, instead of with a bunch of discount-hungry zombies (The Shopping Dead?). It’ll probably be the easiest, most relaxed boycott you’ll ever be a part of. And if you really miss all that shopping excitement, save it up for the next day and celebrate Shop Small Saturday, when you can buy local, buy American, and know that the extra money you’re spending is actually doing good in your community.

Shop Small. Tweet Local.

Don’t get excited; it’s only a 4S.

Want small shops to succeed? Make sure you’re talking about them on social media.

Even people who understand that shopping small has a positive impact on the community (supporting building roads and schools as well as providing more authentic, community-focused options) often have trouble actually buying locally, partly because it seems expensive. Well, you know what’s not expensive? Twitter. Facebook. Instagram.

Saying positive things about small shops on the Internet — even just mentioning that you’re visiting a small shop, or tagging us in a Facebook or Instagram post — has a huge impact on our business.

Partly, this is because most people don’t have enough time to take a chance on a small shop they know nothing about. When we go to Target, Best Buy, or Barnes and Noble, we know exactly what to expect. When we head to an independent, there’s a lot of mystery. And we don’t always like to make room in our lives for mystery. When you take time to tell your followers and friends that you visited and loved a small shop, it makes them feel more comfortable trying it for themselves. After all, they like you, and you liked the shop. Chances are, they’ll like it, too.

Basically, tweeting (or Facebooking or Instagramming) about an independent is free advertising for that store. In an economy where budgets are being slashed, and where independents are struggling to keep prices as low as possible in the face of cutthroat national competition, this is really helpful. We just don’t have money for commercials, print ads, or those super-annoying Facebook coupons. (Seriously, how obnoxious are those? I really don’t care if you saved a buck at Academy Sports, and it just makes me wonder why you didn’t go to locally owned Trak Shak.)

For some reason, Birminghamians are pretty great about spreading the word about local restaurants — not so much about other stores. I have lots of friends who come visit me at Church Street, but you wouldn’t know it from their Twitter feeds. It’s so frustrating to see Instagrammed pictures that are taken at the shop that don’t tag us. Those are opportunities to help my store that are routinely missed. (And it seriously breaks my heart when they Facebook about books bought on Amazon.)

I understand that social media isn’t for everyone, and I certainly don’t want anyone to promote a shop that they don’t like. I also get that location tagging takes away some privacy, and I respect the desire to not constantly tell the whole world exactly where you are and what you’re doing. But if you’re active on social media, you are sending a message to everyone who follows you — are you telling them about your favorite local shops, and promoting more community involvement? Or are you parroting offers from Starbucks and Target that actually drive business away from your community?

A tweet is only 140 characters, but it can still be really helpful (or harmful) for local business.

Fading Out: Goodbye, Shop Small

I’ve been sitting at my computer for two hours, trying to figure out how to say goodbye to Shop Small. Today will be my last post here, since I’m concentrating more on my new blog, PostScript, which launched today.

Lots of you have encouraged me to keep writing Shop Small, and I’ll admit that it’s tempting. There are so many things I wanted to write about that I never got around to: I wanted to switch to a local bank or credit union, but I never had time to research the options thoroughly enough to write about them. I was dying to do a post on cash mobs. I haven’t written about (or even been to) Avondale Brewery, and I’d hoped to use the blog as a chance to finally splurge on a dinner at Bottega or Hot and Hot.

So, yes, it’s tempting to keep writing Shop Small. Instead, I’ve chosen to focus on PostScript, a blog that will (hopefully) build my business, Church Street Coffee & Books. And building my business matters, because it helps the local community, both economically and socially — that’s something Shop Small taught me.

So now, Shop Small is up to you. My life has settled into new buying patterns that take me to local shops instead of big box stores, and I never want to go back — the rewards are huge, in everything from my bank account to peace of mind to quality of life. I hope you’ll think about making changes in your life, whether they’re huge resolutions like mine to totally fast from corporate shopping, or just a few small shifts in where you shop.

If reading Shop Small has reminded you to buy locally, please remember that you can do exactly what I’ve done — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and blogs are extremely powerful tools that you can use to build up small businesses. When you shop locally, brag about it. Post a picture, change your status update, check in on Facebook. Build your community with your purchases, then exponentially increase that impact by telling other people about it. As a local business owner, I can tell you that your involvement in social media means the world to us.

Goodbye, and thank you for reading.

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.

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.

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.

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.

It’s Over!

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.

Who Pays for Free Shipping?

Rain may not stop Fed Ex, but it makes the job more unpleasant.

When something seems too good to be true, it usually is. For some reason, common sense like this seems to go out the window when it comes to the holidays. We accept ridiculously low prices and promises of “no waiting” and “free shipping” like Christmas miracles, never stopping to ask why we’re getting offers this good, and who’s paying for them.

Sometimes, the price of our shopping sprees is lack of human decency to the people who pack our presents and make sure they have overnight, speedy delivery. According to this article, in order for a huge retailer like Amazon or Walmart to come through on their shipping promises, they often outsource labor so they can treat people even worse than they treat their own employees. A company can’t provide something for free unless they make up for those lost profits someplace else. In many cases, low wages and inhuman working conditions are the price of our convenience.

And buying online isn’t just worse for workers — it creates an incredible amount of waste. Packing each person’s order separately takes more boxes and packing materials than it does to ship a bulk order to a local shop. To put it in perspective: Last year, I ordered Christmas gifts online for about 15 people from three different stores. I had more packing material left over from those three orders than I do from the past two weeks of ordering books for my shop, and those gifts go to hundreds of different people. Sure, you can erase some of this waste by reusing boxes and packing peanuts (and I hope that you do). But, while reusing is great, not creating the waste in the first place is best.

I’m not arguing that we should never shop online. In fact, web sales can be a great tool for local shops as well as big boxes. But try to buy from small shops that don’t outsource their shipping, so you can be relatively certain the employees aren’t being treated unfairly. And remember to skip the cyber shops when buying for Father Christmas — Mother Earth will thank you.