Behind Every Purchase, a Person

local business

I was that early ’90s college kid who had the Think Global, Act Local bumper sticker haphazardly stuck to my dorm room door.

Back then, it was a vague concept I was only beginning to grasp. Globalism itself was still early in its wide-reaching transformation of how we eat and shop and work.

By the time I moved to Roanoke, Va., in 2006, buying local, eating local,supporting local was more than a slogan for me. I was trying my hardest to live it in every corner of my life.

But it was a struggle. Driving to a neighboring county to collect local chicken or pork took time and flexibility in my schedule and a big chunk of change. Making a trip to the bookstore around the corner meant a separate errand, precious minutes to park and browse and chat, plus a few more dollars than I would have spent clicking around on Amazon.

I believed the extra effort and expense created a world I wanted to live in, so I made it a priority as much as I could.

Often what kept me going was knowing the owners and employees of the places I shopped. My city, rooted between two mountain ranges, has a population of 100,000 on a good day. The chance that I’d see at school pickup a mom who owned a funky gift shop or a dad who ran an upscale restaurant or an artist who painted commissions was high. It felt good to compliment the new merch I’d seen in the store or the yummy meal I’d eaten on the weekend.

Then, the coronavirus arrived.

And we all caught a glimpse a dystopian future where almost no local stores existed, where the only way to interact with anyone, anywhere was through a screen, where we could click toilet paper or running shoes or that outfit for our girl who was turning 16, but we couldn’t change the message that kept popping up: Item Not Available. We couldn’t ask if there was maybe something similar in the back or if another store might have it in stock, could someone call for me or what did the helpful employee suggest as a substitute? There was nothing but a nameless interface, a warehouse where workers were likely not being treated well, an unknown wait time for a bubblewrap envelope to arrive in the mail.

It took a pandemic for me to truly understand what it means to buy local.

Now I can see how important it is that I know my baker earned a STEM PhD from a top university before he chose to create amazing bagels and buns for me. Now I get how meaningful it is that I’ve sat in meetings with the owners of the new burger joint and the renovated historic movie theater and the hip clothing store and we’ve searched for solutions to tough problems in our neighborhood — homelessness, petty crime, vacant storefronts. Now I can reflect on how much I cherish watching the children of the families that grow my food transform from sweet toddlers to enterprising tweens.

Buying local means supporting people I care for. That fact is suddenly so clear to me. Every purchase I make helps my friends pay their mortgage or buy their food. And every item I supply from a faceless corporate giant headquartered thousands of miles away … doesn’t.

In a world that is so, so complicated. This couldn’t be more simple: If I shop in stores down the street, the families that own them are able to earn their livings in the creative, independent, entrepreneurial ways they’ve chosen. If I don’t, they might not. We are all connected that closely.

Act Local isn’t just a bumper sticker favored by idealistic undergrads. It’s real. And right now — with every aspect of our economy more fragile than in decades — supporting our local businesses is more important than ever.

If we don’t, they won’t survive. And I don’t want to live in a world without them.