Hidden Springs Lane. Should a localist shop at Home Depot? Or Walmart? The question, as I’ve stated it, should taste slightly off, like milk that is just on the verge of turning sour. If localism were an ideology with a strict orthodoxy, then perhaps the answer should be obvious. Absolutely not! To do so would betray the cause. It would undermine the very things every localist is striving to promote: human scale economies that strengthen local communities.
If only things were so simple. But simplistic solutions are the purview of the ideologue and the stuff of utopian dreams. Lived reality is never so clean. Lines tend to be fuzzy and gray is a common shade.
So, is there an answer? Any sensible (which is to say, non-ideological) reply has to take into consideration the particulars of the situation. What do you need to purchase? Are there reasonable options? How much driving is entailed? And of course, price is always a factor that most of us can’t ignore.
Driving 20 miles to a “local” family-owned hardware store to avoid the Home Depot 5 miles from home isn’t clearly the best choice, for one must consider the extra time required to make the drive (time that could be spent in creative and beneficial ways) and the cost of burning more gas (costs both financial and environmental). On the other hand, it may be difficult to justify spending significantly more for a tool at the local when the same thing costs much less at the big box store down the road.
The same kinds of considerations apply to purchasing food. It’s not easy to pay $16.99/lb. for a grass-fed steak when Costco is selling industrial beef for $6.99/lb. Or to pay $4.50 for a dozen eggs at the farmers market when you can buy a dozen at the Wal-Mart for half the price.
One solution is to pay more and eat less meat and eggs, but that is not a complete answer, for we still need to eat something. Keeping a few hens in the backyard is becoming increasingly popular and this solves the egg problem (assuming it’s legal to keep poultry where you live), but this doesn’t solve the steak problem, and raising a steer is a much more complicated affair than raising chickens for eggs.
Purity in these matters is a false goal and perhaps a false god. The key is attentiveness, creativity, and direction. To be attentive is to be aware of the trade-offs that inevitably present themselves. To be creative is to persistently strive to see possibilities where mere habits existed before. Direction indicates the general trajectory of one’s thought and actions. For most of us there is not a settled and satisfied final solution but an ongoing attempt to ensure that we are paying enough attention to make small, incremental steps in the right direction.
But those are abstract notions that require flesh and blood, and while I can’t prescribe universal solutions to issues that are expressly local and particular, here are a couple examples from my particular place.
First, we are fortunate enough to have a great hardware store just a couple miles away. Nichols Hardware is a local institution that will celebrate its first century next year. The hardwood floors are worn smooth, and the place smells like an old hardware store, which is appropriate. The men who work there are friendly, knowledgeable, and readily available to help. They tally your bill with a hand-held calculator and write out your receipt by hand. They usually have what I need and their prices are reasonable, and I love going there just to poke around.
On the rare occasion when they don’t carry an item I need, I make the 20 minute drive to the big box where I all too often have to hunt for someone to help me. To be fair, I am often pleased with the service once I actually find help. However, the service tends to be greatly inferior to what I get a Nichols. The other day I asked a question of an elderly gentleman seated at a display. He told me he didn’t know the answer but he would find someone who did. He told me to wait and left his post in search of a store employee who could answer my question. He was finally told that someone would come, but it would be a few minutes. He returned to me shaking his head apologetically.
“That’s no way to treat customers,” he said. “I used to be vice-president of a company that employed 1300 people. I was fair with my workers, but I would never have tolerated service like this.” He shook his head sadly. I asked him how he came to be working at the big box. He told me his wife got sick and he quit his job to care for her. When my help arrived, he apologized again. Needless to say, I’ve never had that sort of problem at Nichols Hardware.
We’ve been buying eggs from a teen-age boy who raises chickens and runs a little egg business. Yes, the price is a bit more than at the store, but he’s a family friend and the eggs are better. Recently we acquired 25 chickens and my boys and I have built a coop. The chicks were in the garage for a couple weeks, and I must say that my wife was not thrilled with the, shall we say, rural smell that took over our garage and seeped into the house. But now they are in the coop and in a few months we should have eggs of our own. And because these birds are a mixture of hens and roosters, most of the roosters will end up in the pot. It’s a modest start, but next year I hope to raise 40-50 for the freezer. Of course, such a venture requires space and time that not everyone has, but come fall my boys will sell you some eggs, and perhaps we could barter for some broilers. I suspect that a barter economy will be a significant part of any healthy localism.
The honey bees are busy doing their thing, and last week I removed some comb just dripping with fresh honey. The honey was clear as water and delicious. Hopefully by fall we’ll have a lot more. Maybe I’ll swap some with my neighbor who makes maple syrup. He brought a bottle over a couple weeks ago and it sure beats the corn syrup counterfeit.
This week I’m meeting with a neighbor who runs a small tree nursery. I’m hoping he has what I need. If he does, I’ll buy from him. If not, I’ll go elsewhere, but I’d like to give my neighbor the business if I can.
Localism is a disposition and an orientation not an ideology. No one wants to be around someone who is always touting his localist cred. No one wants to engage with a “local-er than thou” type who gives the localist purity test to every transaction—especially the transactions of other people. Sure, shame can motive action, but it can’t produce joy. And who wants to be a joyless localist? What’s the point?