New Bike, Old Grudges

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Cyclist Lesson One: It’s hard to take a selfie with a bicycle.

Cyclists are cooler than me. I see them riding up to bars and shows while the rest of us drive, and they look so happy. I don’t ride my bike much — I’m pretty sure I look stupid, and I’m not very fast. And my old bike looked kind of dumb. But cyclists don’t look dumb. They look like they’re having fun together, and I don’t like it. It’s hard to like people who are cooler than you.

The problem is, the cyclists at the Bici Coop are kind of impossible not to like. They’re actually nice (even to people like me who write blogs about hating them), and they’ve been working for over four years to run a non-profit bike shop in Birmingham, a little beacon of awesomeness in Highland Park that runs totally on volunteer labor and exists just to get people like me, who are intimidated by cycling and can’t afford to invest money into it, on bikes. Bici’s like that popular cheerleader who inexplicably takes the nerdy girl under her wing and introduces her to the cool kids. Why do they do it? I don’t know. It’s just really nice.

You can find out how nice this weekend at Caldwell Park, because Bici’s holding their Kitty Cat Alleycat race. It’s a perfect event for beginners and wannabes (like me), because it’s fun and low-pressure. You can find out more about the alleycat here, but I’ll tell you right now that it’s kind of like a scavenger hunt on bikes. This race is “girls” only, so men can race, too — but they have to wear skirts. See what I mean by awesome? It’s worth coming just to see a bunch of cyclist dudes prancing around in their girly finery. Plus, I’ll be there judging everyone (no, really — I’m a volunteer and I’m judging the fashion show). If you’re not up to racing, come hang out anyway. It’s a $10 donation, or $5 if you bring a potluck item to share (my potluck item is Breakup Cookies from Church Street, so that’s another reason to show up).

And if you can’t come to the Kitty Cat, pop in on a Monday or Thursday night at the Bici Coop (pronounced “beachy co-op,” btw) to get your bike fixed, see about getting a bike of your own, or just to hang out and learn a few cycle-y things (or follow them on Facebook here). I got a new (new-to-me) bike from Bici just a couple of weeks ago. The bike was $75, but I had a trade in bike (the ugly one I mentioned in the first paragraph), so I only paid $15.

I still don’t exactly feel like a cyclist, but I do love my new bike, and I’m actually riding it (the old one just sat by my door). Anna (one of Bici’s founders) helped me pick it out (it was so dirty that I swear I thought it was gray until I cleaned it up), and Ross, another volunteer, non-judgmentally helped me fix a screw that I’d stripped because I can’t even screw things in correctly (seriously, if you’re worried about looking stupid, don’t be — I promise, you won’t look stupider than me). Then volunteer mechanic Cameron got me new tires, new brake lines, and new other-things-I-don’t-remember-the-names-of. Cameron worked on my bike for two hours before I found out he wasn’t even supposed to be volunteering that night — he just stayed and helped me to be kind.

Well, thanks for restoring my faith in humanity, super awesome cyclists of Bici. Sorry I said I hated you.

The Kitty Cat Ladies Alleycat is at Caldwell Park on Sunday, September 1. Any men who participate are required to dress in drag, i.e., wear a skirt or something. Registration is at 3:00 and the race starts at 3:30. Food and party afterward at the park. $10 requested donation, $5 if you bring food to share.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Vote! Only YOU Can Prevent This Sad, Pouty Face.

There’s nothing sadder than seeing local “Best Of” lists packed with names of chain stores. Well, actually there are lots of things sadder than that … but it’s still pretty depressing. But take heart! You can prevent this disappointing non-tragedy by voting right now in The Birmingham News’ Best 2011 poll.

Voting is pretty fun, actually — it’s like taking a quiz that you know all the answers to. You don’t even have to complete the whole thing, because just 10 answers is enough to make your ballot count.

What’s the point of voting? For one thing, I’ll literally cry if Barnes and Noble wins best bookstore, and that’s not something anyone wants to see (my face gets all splotchy). But there are more legitimate reasons than my personal emotional well being: Lists like this are a great way to celebrate what’s unique about Birmingham. They give free advertising to the shops you want to support. Plus, they’re a way to say “thank you” to the shop owners who work hard to give you a great local experience — and believe me, gratitude isn’t something we hear very often.

Click here to vote, and be sure to share the poll with your friends. Let’s show the world that the Best of Birmingham comes from local shops, not from big boxes.