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?

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. Mark,

    A thoughtful post; thanks much for writing it. Like your family, ours is characterized by many compromises: we buy pretty much all of our meat and eggs from local producers; I’ve tried to wean myself away, whenever possible, from the Home Depots and Lowes of the world in favor of the Ace Hardware store just down the road (still a chain, obviously, but a smaller one); for clothes we make use of a lot of second-hand and consignment stores (though they are spread all over Wichita, which means driving!); and for most of the rest of our food shopping, we still mostly rely on Walmart. There are changes we make to the above when and where we can, but all of it, I hope, is done with an eye towards maintaining some sort of joyful (or at least “joy-possible”!) balance in our lives. My wife and I have attempted stricter localist resolutions before, but as you note, it is probably healthier, in both a civic and personal sense, not to be a scold (at least not too much!) about these things.

    Your opening questions–“Can a localist shop at Home Depot? Or Walmart?”–puts me in mind of an old blog discussion Caleb Stegall and I, and others, had over a variation on such: namely, “Can a populist shop at Walmart?” To frame things in terms of “populism” rather than “localism” obviously involves some shifts in emphasis and style, somewhat away from a matter of dispositions and more towards social and economic critique (though, as I’ve argued, I think most localist arguments actually carry theoretical critiques within them that need to be further fleshed out). Still, the overlaps are significant–and, in the end, the conclusions are similar (though see the comments for the ensuring exchanges between Caleb and myself):

    The presence of an economic behometh like Wal-Mart removes much productive responsibility from peoples’ lives. It streamlines and minimizes economic life within a community to such a degree that locals can no longer exercise as much collective control over what kind of life they want to live. Giving the people back greater and greater choices in terms of consumables is admittedly valuable, especially when you’re dealing with a situation (like in America today) where the rich get richer and set a pace (a social and cultural as well as economic pace) that the poor and the midle-class can barely keep up with. Wal-Mart wouldn’t have taken off in the first place if it hadn’t put in place production and delivery chains that could get a lot of previously unavailable consumer goods to poor and isolated Southern and Midwestern towns. Still, the trade off–from local authority to consumer freedom–isn’t worth it….In a world where comparative advantage and global trade and urbanization and specialization have done their work, a world where the ability to live a wholly self-sufficient life has been rendered often incompatible with the demands of information-based economies, a world where farms are shrinking and unions are on the run and guilds are almost wholly a thing of the past, something like a Wal-Mart is probably necessary if we are not to condemn a good portion of any given population (such as those outside of metropolitan centers or who lack sufficient incomes, or both) to deprivation. So sure, you can shop at Wal-Mart. But our responsibility at the present moment–besides our obvious and primary one to doing what’s best for our families and communities–is to figure out ways to limit the Wal-Marts of the world, discipline them and fit them into a new “order” wherein citizens can find themselves to be more than consumers. This will have to involve a rethinking (though not necessarily a complete change) of our estimation of the nation-state and of progressive movements within them.

  2. Russell, I’m happy to report to you that Ace Hardware isn’t a true chain or franchise operation, it’s a retailer’s cooperative (as are True Value and Do It Best). You should feel better about shopping there.

  3. Thank you, Professor Mitchell, for writing about this topic in a concrete, detailed, and personal way. Thank you also for acknowledging the difficult choices that all ordinary but well-meaning people must make. Call me presumptuous, but I feel that you have responded directly to certain points that I made in recent comments.

  4. “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?”

    Great caution! Yes, while even a disposition, an orientation, still requires specific actions in order to avoid abstraction and keep its feet firmly planted in reality, becoming the mere ideologue can equally relegate localism, agrarianism (Please, not “Porcher-ism!) to a loony irrelevancy.

  5. Professor Mitchell

    Much appreciate this. I whole-heartedly agree that concern for one’s local community should be simply “a disposition and an orientation.” To transgress those healthy grounds and levitate to an abstract realm of ideological zealotry from which heights we might hurl ideological stones at our neighbors would be achieving something decidedly perverse: an unneighborly localism, and joyless, to say the least.

    So, yes, ideological purity, a pure localism, is a dangerous aim — but hardly even practical or possible anymore, so somewhat beside the point, I think. More interesting to me is your search for a sensible reply to big box shoppers. And this, I suggest, leads to the economic question of self-interest — the unadulterated, uncoerced, no-nonsense “invisible hand” that keeps sensible people going to Wal-Mart and Home Depot. We are right, I think you’re saying, to be reluctant to judge each others’ autonomy in buying decisions and meddling in the individual’s estimation of his own self-interest. That road, as we all know and agree, leads to others dictating our interests and corrupts society both economically and politically.

    But self-interest is not that simple, as your anecdotes suggest — at least they do to me, although you seem to leave implicit their lessons about values the externalized costs of big boxes. When you write, “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,” you are wrongly conflating cost and price. While your anecdotes clearly point to other values besides cheapness — service, the communal fellowship that takes place in the local marketplace, the wholesome work of raising your own chickens and helping kids value worthy work — you seem to be saying, we cannot, finally, expect people to pay actual money for such things, and we are nothing but scolds for suggesting they should. And if you are saying that we have little choice but to concede that the invisible hand must inevitably drive our justifiably self-interested neighbors (and ourselves, in spite of our desires to be good localists) from our main streets to the cheap prices of the big boxes on the outskirts of town, I’d remind you of Adam Smith’s one use in Wealth of Nations of the term “invisible hand:”

    “By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he [the entrepreneur] intends only his own security, and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.”

    Which begs the question: Would Adam Smith shop at Wal-Mart? Did he regard cheap prices as the only means of true gain or security? It doesn’t sound like it. Perhaps he was too much a localist for that – and one for whom localism was not only “a disposition and an orientation” but a reality so present and tangible, such an unquestioned given fact, that he could scarcely imagine his own well-being apart from that of his community.

    I’d conclude, then, that it’s not joyless abstract doctrine or ideology that would dissuade people from shopping at Wal-Mart or Home Depot, but material realities and engagement of citizens and neighbors, life and real wealth, abundant with real pleasure (as that conveyed by your own stories), restored to our local communities. And that, in a virtuous cycle, might reshape our understanding of ourselves and our self-interests and values, and revive an invisible hand that would steer us back to our towns and a more wholesome life.

  6. Mark,

    Having been to Nichols Hardware I can attest to everything you said about it. It’s the gold standard of hardware stores in these parts if you ask me.

    And it’s a good thing they have those guys working there, you couldn’t find what you’re looking for without them in some cases. To me they’re part of the charm, it goes along with the rest of the ambience of the place. The Personal Shoppers at Nordstrom’s have nothing on those guys.

    Let’s hope the good citizens of your area and elsewhere do their best to keep Nichols and stores like them in business. Good service is worth a little something extra and you’re more likely to find knowledgeable help at these places. Buying at these stores just feels good to me. Value received at a fair price.

    What more can you ask for?

  7. Well my reply was rude and I sincerely apologize. I would like to clarify, however, that I was not being a joyless localist, I was being a joyless tool snob. I mean, how many hammers are we going to buy during our life? It ought to last for a decade or two, at least, and if it’s something we’ll own for a decade or two then take the extra few weeks and save the 10 bucks you need to get a better hammer. Or go to an estate sale. Something. The idea of buying the cheapest hammer you can find just bothers me. I am sorry. I wish I was not such a tool snob – I’ll try to refrain from commenting if it comes up again.
    As far as localism goes, I have doubts, and fussed at Ms. Dalton when she put up a post about local food. I do think there is some sort of human, natural scale to our enterprises. I do not know what that looks like, but it’s not what we have.
    One problem, at least around here, is that the large chains have pretty much wiped out the local businesses. I see them sort of like ailanthus or kudzu – some prolific invasive species. With many necessities the only choices I have are the big box or internet. So we do what we can – back to what Mr. Holton and Professor Mitchell have stated – I think starting with food. Thing is, in my opinion, this is not simply a matter of convenience or price. It’s a matter of life or death for our communities.

  8. I and a few home school mom friends of mine have started a food preservation co-op. We basically all scrounge for free or cheap fresh produce (someone has a cherry or pear tree they don’t tend to or harvest, and they’re happy to let us pick the fruit. Someone has wild berries growing on their property. Grocery stores are trying to get rid of a bumper crop of whatever and put it on sale for <$1/lb. Remember when cherries were everywhere in the Great Lakes area a few years ago? We just finished the last cherry pie filling from that bumper crop last winter.)

    When one of us finds or hears about the bounty, she calls everyone else. Then we split the cost (or labor gathering/picking) and make a day of it washing, chopping, canning, or freezing. Two of the ladies live out in the country, so all of our (17 in all) kids can run wild, gathering ticks and burrs. The oldest are 13, 11, and 10–responsible enough to watch all the babies. And it's FUN. One of my friends also has outdoor burners for hardcore canning in the sweltering heat of July or August.

    All that to say, having a network of people and community connections really helps. People are so generous to just give away their bounty. If you don't hunt, find a hunter and see if he'll sell you meat. Buying beef in bulk is always cost-efficient, if you can save enough cash in advance.

    We live in a depressed industrial city of 150,000, so it's not as though we live in a rural paradise. We hear about a guy who sells organic chickens $2.75 lb, and we order 12 twice a year. One of my home school moms sells eggs $2/dozen.

    But we stopped driving 40 minutes one way to get organic raw cow's milk. (It tasted sooooo good, especially in the spring.) But wasn't worth the money and stress of all that time spent driving (we have one car, and often I'd be dragging all 4 kids along).

  9. Where I live, a small drug store/pharmacy just opened. I eagerly plied the older gentleman who was working the floor hoping to confirm my hopes that it was what it appeared to be — a locally owned, independent business. To my delight, he not only assured me it was but that he himself was the owner. He had once had a similar business just up the street, one I remembered well from my youth, and had quite a while ago sold it and retired. The new owner had gone out of business. Since then the retired pharmacist had heard increasing complaints from his friends and neighbors about the pharmaceutical services of the big chains (around here, CVS and Walgreen’s have taken over), and had been inspired to start anew. When I said how nice it is to see a new independent drug store open, he told me Walgreen’s planned to move in across the street and was not pleased that he was there. He told me they had actually threatened him, but that he was too old for their threats to bother him!

    As we spoke I located the old-fashioned Wilkinson Sword double edge blades I’d gone in hoping to find, having been disappointed in the in-house brands the big chains sell. Incredibly, here they were just $.94 for 5 blades — that’s compared to $6.99 for 10 blades at CVS!

    Shop locally. Stay healthy. Save money.

  10. As Tim Holton points out, price is not cost. The whole theory behind the “free market” presumes that prices reflect costs, but this is rarely true; many actual costs (and not just “values”) are externalized. In the case of the big-box stores, one of the greatest externalized cost is transportation. Without a heavily subsidized “free”way system, that subsidizes long-range shipping, the big-box store would be impossible. Only a gargantuan government can provide these kinds of gargantuan subsidies.

    It is worth noting that a just price is not necessarily the lowest price. Rather, it is the lowest price which fairly compensates all factors of production. That means that all costs must be internalized and there can be no exploitation. So the real issue is justice, and justice does take a certain commitment. It means, among other things, a willingness to have a few less shirts in order to pay a just price. This commitment should fall more heavily on this with more means.

  11. Good Job! Localism doesn’t demand absolute consistency–but some principles do, for examples, respect life and honor marriage. Because Home Depot has interjected itself into the political controversy over the definition of marriage, I have instructed the (local) contractor who is helping me with structural repairs not to buy any materials at Home Depot unless they are unavailable elsewhere locally. And for myself, I plan to buy nothing whatever from Home Depot until they feel the heat (from AFA’s boycott) sufficiently to get out of the political kitchen and tend to their bottom line.

  12. Mr Medaille

    Yes, but how do you suggest to your Wal-Mart-shopping neighbors that they are not adequately committed to justice without sounding like a scold?

    I agree about justice, but doesn’t Smith’s preference for “the support of domestic to that of foreign industry” (or his telling assumption of such support on the part of any reasonable entrepreneur) go beyond justice to matters of local security, self-reliance and character, which the rational individual in Smith’s day evidently identified as inseparable from his personal self-interest? While big boxes have externalized many costs by devaluing such things, most of us — if I may twist the use of the term — have, by excluding them from their estimation of their self-interest, externalized these values. Too few of us care, from a consumer standpoint, whether our town has industry at all, let alone whether we should support it. One wonders how that might change: if an American town had a hammer factory, how many of its citizens would buy the locally made hammer instead of the comparable, but cheaper, Chinese hammer? If their town had not one but several thriving industries, would it begin to challenge the primacy of cheap prices for goods made there? If the citizens of such a town were thriving due to their employment and ownership of such industries, would they seize to shop solely for cheapness? And having rediscovered manufacturing, would they have a revived appreciation for quality and design — and for the sheer pleasure of using a well-made tool? Living near the industries, would they be willing to pay a little more for responsible handling of waste and emissions? Being or knowing employees of the industries, would they be willing to pay a little more in order to support fair wages?

    And even when they bought things not made locally, would their own local experience of industry give them appreciation for the true costs of manufactured goods?

    By the way, haven’t perused it much, but there appears to be a lot on on big chains and their externalized costs at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, http://www.ilsr.org.

  13. Very well written, sir. I appreciate you tackling this topic. It is very timely for me since it is something that has been weighing heavily on my mind as of recently. It began with my family walking into a Wal-Mart after buying milk and cheese at our local dairy farm (still 20 miles away) and receiving eggs once again from a neighbor. How does this mesh? When does the “local-er than thou” surface? How are we to humbly and consistently be a localist in these situations? The cost-benefit ratio is much more than simply being “economic.” It takes wisdom and balance. Avoid any feelings of guilt or it will lead you down that “local-er than thou” path. But then again, that guilt feeling is sometimes needed to make us consistent!

  14. The following goods are made, grown, or produced within 20 miles of my house: frames (for art), artwork, dairy cows, beef cattle, apples, apple cider, apple pies, pears, raspberries, ice cream, jewelry, clothing, decorative glass, vegetables, recreational boats, sails, and submarines. Here are the box stores and supermarkets within the same radius: Lowes, Home Depot, Wal*Mart, BJ’s, Staples, Stop & Shop, Big Y, Shaw’s, and Shop-Rite. So far, so good, but who knows what the future will bring.

  15. Localism is now just another consumer choice. You pay a premium for the aesthetic feel of shopping at a small store, or for helping out a friend. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it is using the exact same process by which other people decide to shop at the big boxes. The only thing is that big box shopping is more natural for most people, whereas localism pretty much has to be an ideology. Most people aren’t going to research who is local and who isn’t or where anything comes from.

    The constant denigration of big-boxes is becoming wearying though. I haven’t yet been able to figure out what exactly is wrong with leveraging economies of scale to allocate goods at very low costs. Low costs are good, guys. If anything brings down the big box, it will be not localism but rather an even more effective leveraging operation–internet shopping.

    • Matt — Hidden costs aren’t abstract matters of mere ideology–they’re HIDDEN. As discussed, low prices are not the same as low costs.

      I share your distrust of “isms”. But local loyalties (matters of security, not just sentimentality), and understanding of local economies as well as the power of large corporations to externalize costs, are not the stuff of ideological “isms”. I think you’re citing the legitimacy of self-interest; my first comment above goes to the corruption of true self-interest since the time of Adam Smith for whom domestic security and vitality of domestic industry was of primary concern.

      Nor are all consumer choices merely “aesthetic.” One of the great drawbacks of the ideology of aesthetics (yes, it’s an ideology, overly dependent on abstraction) that emerged in the 18th and 19th century is that it fabricated a category of experience that was entirely personal, hence easy to dismiss. In any case, aesthetics are clearly not the basis of reasoning behind this essay or any criticism of big boxes I’ve ever read. To identify the “consumer choice” of shopping at a small local store as “aesthetic” is to dismiss it as entirely personal and emotional and therefore off-limits for debate of the public interest in such matters. Considering the enormously consequential costs of big box cheap prices (not always, or forever, cheap), that would be a disastrous mistake.

  16. Amen, Matt. I am a lover of nature and local things, but I also love that new-tire smell when the spring stock of ride-on mowers arrives at Lowe’s and Home Depot. I bought a Troy-Bilt eight years ago, and its Kohler engine is beefy piece of machinery. I saved hundreds of dollars–yes, hundreds–by making my purchase at Lowe’s instead of the local, independently-owned lawn-care store.

    In fairness, however, when the mower’s sheer pin broke, none of the box stores could sell me a replacement. I found one at a dusty little tractor-supply store about ten miles from my home where an elderly woman, the proprietor’s wife, shuffled to the back office and emerged three minutes later with an equally dusty sheer pin and said, “It’s been back there since the ’70s.”

    P.S. I forgot to include vineyards and goats in my list. The goats are for cheese.

  17. It wasn’t me that brought aesthetics into it:

    “The hardwood floors are worn smooth, and the place smells like an old hardware store, which is appropriate. They tally your bill with a hand-held calculator and write out your receipt by hand.”

    If all that stuff makes you feel good, then paying the premium might be worth it. Most people don’t care all that much. The inevitable problem with these things is that other people never care as much as we want them to.

    If big boxes are trading on an unfair advantage gained through legislation of some kind, then by all means lets repeal the legislation. But better selections and economies of scale are not unfair advantages, and when all the subsidies are gone don’t be shocked if people still go to the big boxes.

    • Fair enough, but the localist position found on FPR is not fundamentally or essentially an aesthetic argument. To insist otherwise is to miss the point.

      Economies of scale are important and a generally fair means of reducing costs and prices, but are not the whole story with big boxes. Vendors are often exploited, and increasingly so because of the decrease in competition due to big boxes. As for selection, your experience must be different from mine. Pre-big box era, larger stores had more selection. Now generally they stock one brand — the cheapest to them (not necessarily to the consumer), regardless of quality. And by quality I’m not talking about aesthetics.

      One of the virtues of a good merchant — and pride in that virtue, offered to people he lived among, was a true incentive — used to be knowledge about the merchandise. That is to say, there was a true understanding of value. When the only criterion is cheapness, much is lost.

  18. Mark,

    I grew up in a little southern town that existed because it was at a cross-roads. It was there before the Civil War and was much the same when I left it to go to college.

    I needed a student loan while I was in college, so I went to the little “local” bank . I explained to the bank president (very small bank by today’s standards) that I needed a loan for the first two years of college. I signed the note and my parents co-signed. That was it. The local dry-goods store was very simple and practical in the clothing they sold. After all, this wasn’t Memphis. The grocery store had local produce. They all knew I was Harold and Sue’s oldest boy. School was local and with no Federal involvement. It was so simple. It was community and I was a citizen of the community, known not as a person to whom meta tags were attached, not a human resource commodity, not a voting block but as an individual in community. I had value and I knew and felt it.

    When we go to the Global Chain, we are no longer personal, individual or community. We lose our identity and our freedom to live as an individual. We surrender to the larger forces of impersonal Capitalism. Our value is only as a consumer with money and data. We become just another worker bee. You feel that too?


    Read Richard Weaver, Wendell Berry or Allen Take–any of the Southern Agrarians. They say this much better than I do.

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