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December 13-19, 2006

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Power Shopping

We are only as political as where we choose to put our money

By Michael Shapiro


I have a confession: I just bought my new Nikon at RitzCamera.com. What's the big deal? Simply that buying online from a national chain goes against everything I believe.

I avoid Wal-Mart like the scourge that it is and shun mega-malls. Instead, I buy my books at Copperfield's Books in Sebastopol or at Book Passage in Corte Madera. (Copperfield's has other outlets in Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Napa and Calistoga.) I wanted to buy my camera at an independent store, but none had the camera-and-lens combo I sought. So I purchased it from a faceless online vendor and ended up saving about $100 because I didn't have to pay sales tax. This savings didn't make me feel any better, but I'm sure it induces lots of people to buy online, making it even harder for local merchants to survive.

For me, buying locally isn't a vague altruistic notion about doing the right thing. It's damn personal, even selfish. I want independent stores to endure. Locally owned merchants are the true pillars of the community. And when they're driven out of business by predatory chain stores, we all lose.

A battle is being waged right now in Corte Madera, where a mammoth Barnes & Noble opened last month down the street from Book Passage. That independent bookstore, owned by Elaine and Bill Petrocelli, has a 30-year history of bringing top authors to Marin County, sponsoring events like last year's benefit with Amy Tan for Hurricane Katrina victims, and raising some $60,000 a year for the local hospice chapter through the sale of donated used books.

Beyond all that, what Book Passage gives back is this: The bookstore has become a place where people gather. Book groups meet there, annual conferences bring aspiring and legendary writers together (and add to the coffers of nearby hotels, restaurants and bars), and book lovers converse in the store's cafe.

On a sun-splashed August day, there are few places I'd rather be than on Book Passage's piazza, chatting over a chai tea and gazing at the perfect pinnacle of Mt. Tam. In so many ways, Book Passage and other independent stores have become the piazzas of America. We sorely lack what's found in most every European and Latin America town: the central plaza, the zocalo, the village green. Vibrant bookstores with cafes help to fill this void.

A four-day travel-writing seminar at Book Passage in 1992 fueled my desire to become a travel writer. A decade later, I garnered a contract for my first literary book, A Sense of Place, from a publishing house called Travelers' Tales, whose executive editor I met at that seminar.

Whether buying books, bicycles, crafts, hardware or produce, there are so many reasons to support local shops. Much more of your dollar stays in the community (as opposed to getting siphoned off to some distant corporate headquarters), and local merchants often support nearby producers, cutting down on the environmental costs of shipping. Independent stores don't create the sprawl of malls. Since 1990, the amount of retail space per American has doubled, from 19 square feet to 38 square feet, according to Stacy Mitchell, author of Big-Box Swindle. Great Britain has just seven square feet per person.

"I believe we are as political as where we put our money," says Candra Rainey, owner of Milk & Honey, a gift and jewelry store in Sebastopol. "We can take back our power with our everyday choices. It is political to buy from a local, small business.~It is political to buy from a woman-owned store. It is political to support local artists."

Many of us are glad to send $40 to NPR or $50 to Greenpeace. Yet we sometimes drive to clusters of soulless boxes or succumb to the ease of buying online without realizing what's being lost. In the last 15 years, about half the independent bookstores in the U.S. have shut down. Similar trends have hit pharmacies, stationery shops and other local businesses. With the holidays approaching, let's support local stores and keep our community centers alive. We'll all be better for it in the long run.

So what will I do with the $100 I saved on my camera? I'm using it to renew my membership in Left Coast Writers, a monthly salon at Book Passage where writers meet with top authors and editors, the kind of gathering that will never happen down the street at Barnes & Noble.


Info on Stacy Mitchell's book, 'Big-Box Swindle,' is at www.bigboxswindle.com. For Mitchell's report about the costs of megastores, go to www.bohemian.com and download the pdf. For an alliance of local Petaluma businesses, see www.ibuypetaluma.org.


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