$hop free or die!

We’ve been hearing a lot in the news lately about multinational corporations, colossal corporate mergers amounting to billions of dollars, and (in some cases) human rights violations or quality control failures resulting from production in third-world countries. In my current course on Law and the International Economy, for example, we’re reading about the worst industrial accident in corporate history—even worse than the infamous nuclear reactor meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986, despite the fact that you hear about it far less.

I’m talking about the Bhopal disaster of 1984, in which methyl isocyanate gas was released from a pesticide plant operated by Union Carbide (now owned by Dow Chemical) in Madhya Pradesh, India. At Chernobyl, 56 people were killed instantly and an estimated 4,000 people may die of cancer caused by radiation exposure. At Bhopal, by contrast, nearly 2,300 people died instantly, with the death toll rising to 8,000 within a week of the incident and an estimated 8,000 more deaths resulting from complications related to the incident since then.

Perhaps not surprisingly, cases relating to the Bhopal disaster are still being litigated in courts around the world.

My point in mentioning these disasters is not to hate on corporations. There is a lot of evidence that suggests that the rise of foreign direct investment in international markets (i.e., corporations establishing overseas production facilities and even corporate branches abroad) is making everyone in this country wealthier, despite what you hear about job losses resulting from outsourcing. There is also a lot of evidence that suggests that I will be working for or with one or more corporations someday soon, so “people in glass houses,” and so forth…

However, one thing that does worry me about the continuing rise of the colossal corporation is the threat it poses to small, local, independent businesses.

You see, I have decided in the last year or so that I am a big, big fan of independent businesses. I’m not sure what it was that did it for me. Perhaps I spent too much time shuffling through identical BCBGs, Louis Vuittons, and H&Ms in the myopic malls of Los Angeles. Perhaps I grew weary of walking across campus and seeing that 1,627 of my closest friends were carrying the same beverage that I was. Perhaps it was something else entirely.

But if I had to guess, I’d say that it all started on a trip to San Francisco in June of last year. I was there on tour with a choir I sang with at the time, but there were several days when we had plenty of time to explore the city and do our own thing. I was really on a reading kick those days (perhaps, prophetically, I saw that I would soon be unable to read for pleasure except at holidays), and so I decided to seek out a bookstore.

As it happens, San Francisco is one of the best cities in the country for independent bookstores. Of course, City Lights Bookstore (home of the Beat poets of the 1960s) is the most famous, but there are several other gems, as well. Near Lombard Street, for example, I stumbled out of a street festival and into Great Overland Book Co., a used bookstore so independent that it doesn’t even have its own website. I bought a copy of Mrs. Dalloway and walked down to the Fort Mason area along the water, where I leaned back against a tree, took in the view of the Golden Gate Bridge, and dove into Woolf’s masterpiece.

Later that week, in Berkeley, I spent at least two hours in Moe’s Books and an hour in The Musical Offering, which (in what must be the most brilliant possible fusion of two of my greatest loves) combines a classical record shop with a delicious café. (For folks on the East Coast, Kramerbooks & Afterwords, near Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., does much the same thing with books—and, even better, includes a bar!)

That week in San Francisco, I began thinking to myself: Why ever shop at Barnes & Noble again? The independent bookstores were so much more memorable, so much more personable, so much more… real! While I understand that there are actually a number of good reasons to shop at Barnes & Noble (the ease and convenience that comes with familiarity, the ability to quickly track down a hard-to-find-title, perhaps a lack of independent bookstores in your area), the contrast between the independent gems of San Francisco and stale, corporate copycats like Borders or Waldenbooks left me with a clear preference for the former. (Don’t believe me? Just watch You’ve Got Mail…)

The same logic can be extended to so many other types of businesses. Name me a national enterprise in any niche industry, and I’ll name you an independent competitor that does it better.

Let’s take coffee shops. Starbucks? Forget it. In Cambridge, Algiers (also website-less) beats the pants of Starbucks eight days a week. Crema, less than a block away, is a close second. In Milwaukee, Alterra (though growing rapidly) is still proudly independent—and a better cup of coffee, if you ask me.

Looking for a pastry without the coffee? Skip Dunkin and Krispy Kreme and go for The Biscuit in Somerville (if you’re from Boston) or Le Rêve Patisserie in Wauwatosa (if you’re from back home). I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

How about a scarf for those last few weeks of winter? All of the department stores have them, but so do Irish Imports, Ltd. in Cambridge, MA and Lillie’s Goods in Cedarburg, WI—and their scarves are much more distinctive, too. Shop at Lillie’s or Irish, and you won’t have the unpleasant experience of walking down the street and seeing someone else wearing your clothes.

Need something fixed? Please, don’t go to Home Depot or Lowe’s. Find your local hardware store instead. Even if it’s a locally owned franchise (like Ace), the owners of the franchise are likely to be in the store every day, standing behind the counter and ready to help you with what you need. If you’re wondering whether your hardware store is independent, wood floors and actual windows are both promising signs. What’s a trip to the hardware store without the smell of wood shavings and old metal, and little drawers full of things that only the owner knows how to find? (For a humorous take on the local hardware store, check out track no. 3 on this album by folk legend David Wilcox, shared with me by a reader and friend.)

More examples would only serve to illustrate the same point: for almost anything you need to buy, there’s a local, independently-owned establishment that will give you a better product and a more enjoyable experience for your money. Might it be a little more expensive or require a bit more effort to find sometimes? Sure. But I’ve found that it’s worth it, every time.

I’m really not a huge idealist when it comes to my shopping habits. I don’t care whether what I buy is green, or fat free, or fair trade, or organic, or recyclable, or even what kind of labor went into making it. But I do care about the people who are working hard to support our local economies with their independent businesses. They are the last holdout against a Starbucks on every corner that doesn’t have one already.

So if you’re going to be spending your money anyway, why give it to a huge, multinational corporation? Go independent, go local, and go home happy.

And if you know and love any independent establishments in Boston (or Milwaukee), I’d love it if you sent the info my way!


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