Chained to You

The other day, I woke up rather late thanks to excessive Scrabble activities the night before, and I decided to swing by the Headlands on my way into work for a chai and a croissant. I realize I should not be rewarding myself for getting up late, but I didn’t have time for breakfast and I knew I would be a cranky kitten if I didn’t eat something. So it was ungodly early on Sunday morning and I stood in line idly staring at pastries waiting for my turn. I saw some people I knew and waved at them while I waited. Then I ordered, and strode off into the morning trying not to spill my beverage.

When my other coworker arrived, I saw that she had apparently decided to stop at Starbucks on her way in, judging from the large “Starbucks Coffee” drink in her hand. I thought this was a curious decision, since even if she didn’t want to go to Headlands, she could have gone to the Cookie Company, which is in the same building our work is. The cookie company also happens to be locally owned, and while I think their hot chocolate sucks, they do make some mighty fine cookies, and don’t get me started on the chocolate muffins. And since I don’t drink coffee, it may be that they make superb coffee drinks. But no, she went to Starbucks and juggled her hot beverage in the car on the way into work, rather than buying locally a few steps away from work.

Now, in the literal sense, Starbucks is a “local” establishment, because it is located within the limits of the City of Fort Bragg. But it’s not local in the sense of being locally owned by people I know, people whose children I went to school with. (Or, increasingly now, people with whom I went to school.) For me, buying local makes sense because local businesses give back to their community. By purchasing a chai at Headlands, I am enabling the Headlands to give back in a variety of ways. (One of which I benefited from when I went to college–the Jenny Gealy memorial scholarship.) Many chains lately have caught onto the idea that the communities they poison are understandably irritated, and they put our pamphlets about “corporate responsibility” and “giving back.” All of which are great things, but they ignore the bottom line for these businesses, which is profit and stock value. These businesses have no “community” because their locations are far flung and decentralized throughout the nation. And while more and more are understanding the value of social responsibility, I suspect that they engage in recycling programs, organic and fair trade sourcing, and other things because of consumer pressure, not out of a personal sense of duty or community building.

I’m a big fan of localized economies, and I strongly dislike chains. I dislike uniformity in general, and when someone recently told me she goes to places like Starbucks because it’s “safe, I always know what I’m getting,” I wonder if she realized what she was saying. For me, the adventure of going to new places is exploring new food and drink. Yes, sometimes I strike out and am disappointed by my meal, but at other times I am delighted by what I find, and I rejoice in it. I don’t go to places like Starbucks exactly because I know what I’m getting, I know it will never change, and I know that their employees are not offered creativity. Does Denny’s have evening specials? No, because all Denny’s cooks across the nation cook the same thing (and that thing is shipped in mostly pre-made already in giant frozen cases). I don’t eat the same thing every time I go to a restaurant, because I like to explore my world. Why would I want to get the same thing, prepared exactly the same way, every day? Why go to WalMart and buy cheap plastic crap when I can go to a local store for a quality product that will last me a life time? (Thank God, we have no WalMart here. Yet.)

Especially when I travel, I avoid chains like the plague. What’s the point of going to Hawaii and eating the same food I can get on the mainland? Why bother going to France if you’re going to hide in EuroDisney? Adventuring is about new experiences across the range of senses, and that includes taste. It horrifies me to think that people are afraid of exploring local eateries, that they must consult their pompous restaurant review guides, and can’t think for themselves. (More about my dislike of the restaurant reviewing system later–suffice it to say that I suspect it of many glaring biases.) Safety is for fools–let go your parachute and see where the winds take you!

Some people argue that going to chains is more convenient, or that chains offer services other businesses don’t provide. (Someone made that claim to me about Starbucks recently–they said “they are open until nine and they have wireless internet!” and I said “Headlands is open until 10, 11 on weekends, they have wireless internet, and they have live music.”) Now, granted, my father always told me that I make things more difficult for myself than they need to be, but I am a firm believer in eschewing convenience. Life is not convenient, you never learn anything by taking an easy path, and I suspect it’s a sign of weakness.

And have you ever had a dispute with service in a chain? At a local business, if I get bad service or a product with which I am dissatisfied, I can talk directly to the owner–often because ou is behind the counter, or in the phone book. I can get direct results, rapidly, because my business is important to the owner. Community support and a good reputation are invaluable. If I have a problem with a chain, it’s impossible to get ahold of anyone who can actually resolve my dispute. Most “managers” are figureheads who have no actual authority, and can only forward my infuriation on to corporate–and if I do get a response, it will be lackluster and months later. What does a corporate office care if one person in one podunk town is displeased with their business? They have millions of customers elsewhere.

Now, sometimes a non-local source for a product is better. For example, the Headlands serves Big River Coffee, which despite the name is a company based in Santa Rosa (which to be fair is still reasonably local to Fort Bragg). But Big River Coffee is still family owned and operated–it is most decidedly not a chain. Chains, in my opinion, choke local economies and creativity, all in one, and that is a shameful thing. In some areas, the only place a consumer can go is a chain, and I think that is a terrible shame. I think about the small mom and pop hardware store that got choked out by some huge corporation which offered lower prices, and it saddens me. These communities would have a very difficult time going back, kicking the chains out, and embracing local businesses again.

Local business is better business because the money stays local. Yes, chains pay locally based employees and taxes, but they don’t use local banks, send the children of the owner to local schools, or participate in locally organized events. Local business encourage an interactive community with friendly faces that you know, personally. And local businesses usually provide better business and services, although their service may take longer. For example, I can get a book next day aired to me from Amazon, but if I can’t remember what the book I wanted was, Amazon can’t help me. The Gallery Bookshop can, even I say something vague like “it was in the Chronicle Magazine last week, and it had a red cover.” The helpful staff there can figure out what the book was and order it for me–and it usually arrives within a few days. And if I like the book, someone there will have recommendations for other reading I might enjoy. Employees of local businesses like to help you out, to keep your business and to keep their good name in the community. Chain employees don’t have the same commitment, even if they themselves are local.

The social network that locally owned businesses build is crucial to my existence. I think of the establishments I frequent more as extensions of my family than faceless entities. And in turn I am welcomed as a member of the family, given excellent and loving service, and encouraged to come again. At Harvest, the checkers smile at me and ask how I’m doing, and what I’m making for dinner. Sometimes we swap recipes. And in turn I know bits and pieces of their lives. I know if my bagger’s father is sick and in the hospital, and I make sure to enquire after his health. At Headlands, I good naturedly razz the owners about not carrying vegan chocolate cake while I order my decidedly non-vegan hot chocolate. At the Gallery Bookshop, I know the staff would never dream of letting me order a bad book, even if it meant more money for the business. And this is why I frequent local businesses, because for me every transaction should also be a community interaction.

My favourite restaurant in the entire world quite admirably commits to buying locally whenever possible. It’s one of the things that makes me a loyal customer–I know that when it is feasible, my food will be as close to the source as possible. It tastes better, not only in the soul but on the tongue. The Brewery makes some damn fine beer, and why would I get beer anywhere else when Rasputin is literally 200 feet away. (Although I wish they wouldn’t brew in town because the smell makes me vomit.)

Buying locally just makes more sense, at the bottom line, for us all. This is the reason I don’t shop in the stores here like Safeway, Rite Aid, and so forth–because I can get better service, better products, and better karma by giving my business to a local establishment.

[buy local]