December 10, 2008

Keep it real

Here’s the deal: Your economy is collapsing, more people than at any time in recent memory are without jobs, you have no money, you are trapped in your job out of some preternatural survival mechanism, and it just got awfully cold.

You may be scrambling through this time of abstract devastation without understanding what is happening. You may be fatigued. You may become more acquainted with personal weakness, or question the very fabric of your existence with a cursory examination of that which is around you — car, house, computer — and snap to judgment. Your fuse may be short.

You may be putting off the customary purchase of wares this season out of the creeping fear that you will, in some perverse new equation by which the regular injection of capital and daily dismissal thereof no longer balance, fall short. You may have a disease.

You will know that things have gone wicked when you read news reports of a man trampled to death by a throng of would-be shoppers as the soft holiday music played on. You will understand evil when you come upon the last mobile electronic device in the big-box store and furious explosions commence in your chest as a young man, oblivious, snatches it and you contemplate violence. You will understand human frailty through the worn eyes of a cashier.

You are given to seek solace when things fall down by locating something stable and clinging to it madly, like a starved hyena picking at a gnawed bone. You are reaping. You are the most honest thing you know, and the most terrible, and terrified.

Like you, our impressive cadre of locally owned businesses has enjoyed more prosperous times. East Market is a microcosm of the recessionary effect: Jenicca’s Cafe & Wine Bar just went out of business. Across the street, Melillo’s is wrapping at the end of the year. Zena’s Cafe, nearby on East Main, just bolted the door. Somewhere around 30 local restaurants — perhaps more — have collapsed since summer.

In October, consumer spending dropped the most in seven years, according to a Bloomberg report last week. Consumer spending makes up two-thirds of the American economy.

We are a nation of spenders, as we are a city of them. This is your exercise in power and influence, and it is as crucial this year as ever that you buy local. Sure, it might be easier to hit up Wal-Mart or Border’s for the one-stop experience, but that will only exacerbate our emerging global problem, which is equal parts the bleak soullessness of chain-store America and recession. The extant culture of our local commerce is perhaps enough alone to shake you free from your recessionary malaise.

If not, let’s try an economic argument. Say the U.S. economy falls into a recession, which in turn causes Britain, Europe and Japan to do the same. This unique condition is leading us toward a global recession, many economists agree. The juggernaut American GDP will fall, and this will translate to your life several ways, the most pressing of which may be the collapse of some major commercial infrastructure.

What then happens to a city like Louisville? The Great Suck-In. Ancillary chains fall off. Wal-Mart, Kroger and the (esoteric, conceptual) Mall assert their dominance. You lose choice, that uniquely American thing bred into our psyches, however falsely.

The independent sellers must feed somewhere or they die. Being in a global recession should reinvigorate the concept — at a paint-by-numbers level — that strong local communities are key to sustaining our civilization, if for no other reason than we see the net effect actual citizens can have on major chains: none (short of unlikely economic boycott).

According to an equation pushed by the American Independent Business Alliance, the economic multiplier effect of shopping at a locally owned business is likely triple that of a chain store.

To be clear, we don’t appear to have determined a way to sustain our lifestyles without the jobs and service economies offered by big business; however, there is an essential balance to be achieved.

This year, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (of which this newspaper is a member) is promoting a shop local initiative that asks each reader to pledge to spend $100 at a locally owned store. If every one of our readers spends that much, we’ll have generated $18.7 million for the Louisville economy; if every reader of an alt-weekly does, there will be a $1.7 billion impact.

Please go here to pledge.