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February, 2007

West Marin: A Local Living Economy
By Steve Costa

In 2001, my longtime dream of owning a community-serving business was realized when, without any retail or bookselling experience, I purchased the Brown Study Bookshop, a sleepy used-book store in Point Reyes Station. I soon came to learn the realities of owning a small independent business in an age when consumers, seeking the best deal, are drawn to purchasing goods online and in big-box stores.
The last two decades have brought sweeping changes in many American communities as strip malls, big-box retailers, and e-commerce replace the locally owned shops on Main Street. Nationally, the number of independent bookstores alone has fallen from 4,700 in 1993 to 2,500 today, as revenues from Internet book sales climbed from $2.6 billion in 2002 to $4 billion in 2006. Describing the mega-corporate takeover in The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century, David Korten writes, "unlike the owners of locally based businesses, the absentee shareholder owners of these new businesses have little knowledge or concern for the consequences at the local level for action taken on behalf of the corporation."

In contrast, a growing movement of independent businesses is creating "local living economies" and seeking a "living return"-one partially paid by the benefits of living and working in healthy, vibrant communities. West Marin has a dynamic local living economy. Business owners here are a part of-and care about-the social, cultural and environmental fabric of our area. They have personal relationships with one another and their customers, which lead them to define success more holistically, not just as "the bottom line no matter what the social and environmental costs."

Think Local-Shop Local-Eat Local
Luckily, West Marin's population is small enough not to be threatened by the chance that Big Boxes will be built here. But the continued existence of unique and locally owned stores, businesses, and farms is threatened nonetheless by the dollars spent over the hill and online. In The Small-Mart Revolution: How Local Businesses Are Beating the Global Competition, Michael Shuman describes the "multiplier effect"-one of a dozen reasons that, when price and convenience are roughly equal, conscientious consumers should always favor local goods and services.

"Every local purchase you make triggers purchases by others. The more times a dollar circulates within a defined geographic area and the faster it circulates without leaving that area, the more income, wealth, and jobs it generates.... Locally owned business provide substantial benefits to the local economy by contributing $68 of every $100 back into the community."

Last year Point Reyes Books, the West Marin Chamber of Commerce, and Marin Organic initiated a "Think Local First" campaign that has been encouraging both locals and visitors to "shop and eat local." Supported by the national Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), West Marin Think Local First Campaign has multiple goals:

Encouraging residents, both full-time and weekenders, to think of purchasing West Marin products and services first before going elsewhere for them

Encouraging locally owned businesses to do more business with other locally owned businesses

Educating locals and visitors about the benefits of supporting small independent food growers and the Bay Area's growing sustainable organic food system by buying and eating locally grown food

Educating the more than 2 million annual visitors to West Marin about the benefits of supporting small independent businesses wherever they may live. The price tag on goods is only one way to evaluate their cost-and value. Others are the environmental impact of individual car trips over the hill, the time and expense involved in distant shopping expeditions, and the quality of locally produced goods. Locally raised food, for example, both tastes better and purchasing it supports the continued existence of the farms and ranches that contribute in so many ways to our way of life.

Small Businesses Give Back
Small businesses make indispensable charitable contributions to local nonprofits, schools, and community needs. A study of businesses detailing charitable giving showed that, when in-kind contributions were included, large firms gave on average $334 per employee, medium-sized businesses gave $172, and small businesses gave $789.

Here's another way to look at local impact, taking just the bookstore's experience. During 2006, Point Reyes Books sponsored 42 author and other events. sponsored 0 events. Through these events and other projects such as Book Angels and the Wild Book Show, the bookstore raised more than $70,000 for local nonprofits, schools, and other community projects. raised $0 for local organizations. The bookstore purchased goods and services from more than 40 local businesses. Amazon purchased 0 goods. Throughout California, independent booksellers collected more than $10 million in sales taxes last year to support schools, social services, and public agencies. Amazon paid $0 state sales taxes.

Perhaps most important, commerce at a smaller scale creates relationships, which is a primary value of a small community. Here in West Marin, we are fortunate to have the opportunity to know our shopkeepers, growers, producers, and service providers, as they are often our neighbors and our friends. Author, poet and farmer Wendell Berry declares that the idea of a local living economy "rests upon only two principles: community and subsistence. In a viable community, neighbors ask themselves what they can do or provide for one another, and they find answers that they and their place can afford. This, and nothing else, is the practice of community. Of course, everything needed locally cannot be produced locally. But a viable community is made up of neighbors who cherish and protect what they have in common."

Steve Costa and his wife Kate own Point Reyes Books and reside in Inverness.

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