When was it that “local” – a word that rhymes with yokel and has long been a synonym for small-time and provincial – became hot? When did a gnarly heirloom tomato replace a spotless Calgene Flavr Savr as the “it” produce? What has prompted people to enthuse over artisanal cheeses, dirt-caked root vegetables, micro-batch beverages, and sketchy-looking salsas in Mason jars?
Bright lights and big cities are undeniably fun and productive, especially Monday through Friday. But town squares and farmers’ markets – even in big cities – are where the action is most weekends in most neighborhoods.
Let’s go back to where it all began. (Well, since most things start locally, perhaps not quite that far.) In recent history, the back-to-the-land 1960s begat communes and a small-is-beautiful movement. Most of those experiments fizzled as idealism crashed into practicality. But something was stirring. In the ensuing decades, urban pioneering, organic farming, slow food, and a “think global, act local” ethos gathered pace. By the ’70s, preservation movements were stopping the wrecking balls of urban renewal and forcing the rethinking of neighborhood-crushing superhighway projects such as Interstate 95 in Boston and the Westway in Manhattan.
I’d argue, however, that the tipping point for localism didn’t occur in one epic battle. Localism prevailed in ten thousand places where residents began to care about the community around them instead of just launching away on their morning commutes and reentering their neighborhoods at night. The shop around the corner may not have more stuff or better deals than Wal-Mart, but it contributes to the fabric of life and is worth patronizing.
Most local business get nowhere near the Fortune 500, though a few occasionally make it big. Wal-Mart started locally in Bentonville, Ark.; McDonald’s was once a lone burger joint in San Bernardino, Calif. But their small time was a long time ago.
In a Monitor cover story, Yvonne Zipp has good news about a quintessential local enterprise, the independent bookstore. For decades these were under threat, first by chains like B. Dalton and then category-killers like Borders and Barnes & Noble. The 1998 romantic comedy “You’ve Got Mail” tells the tale of a friendly little bookstore driven out of business by a B&N-type giant (which, in the end, turns out to be a friendly enough place – and, surprise, onetime rivals, played by Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, fall in love).
Interestingly, 1998 was just about the high-water mark of big bookstores. Amazon was already stalking them with a cheaper and more plentiful inventory, and the Internet was disrupting reading habits and information availability. As Yvonne shows, however, independent bookstores had two secret weapons: They were small. And they were loved.
I’ll let Yvonne explain the clever and heartwarming ways these paper-and-ink (and now e-book and often also coffee and greeting cards) survivors have made their businesses work in a digital age. The main thing to understand is that because they were part of a community, locals have embraced them. A bookstore is a safe, pleasant place to frequent. And, of course, their merchandise is hardly small-time and provincial. The volumes sitting on their shelves have the power to expand thinking across the globe, out into the universe, and deep into the realm of soul.
Local, you see, isn’t about geography. It’s a state of mind.
John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.