Monday, November 20, 2006

Buy local... while you still can.

I spent last Saturday evening at Stacy Mitchell's book reading in the old Center for Cultural Exchange space. The event was sponsored by the Portland Buy Local campaign, a new organization that's gaining lots of steam as a sort of chamber of commerce for homegrown businesses.

Mitchell was an excellent speaker, and her concerns with big box retailing are well founded and well researched. I should say that I generally agreed with her from the outset: big box retailers exploit structural inefficiencies in our economy (cheap suburban land and cheap gas, chief among them) at tremendous expense to workers, communities, and even to the consumers they are supposed to serve.

But I was also troubled by another aspect of Saturday's gathering: the expensive snacks donated by local caterers. Not that they weren't tasty - I certainly sampled the offerings - but the fact that fancy foods like these are typically beyond the means of most Portlanders, myself included. What value is there in local businesses that produce and sell things that most locals don't really need, or can't afford?

Indeed, the proliferation of upscale boutiques (call it retail gentrification) in downtown Portland seems, in some ways, to be the other side of the big box coin: consumers seeking bargains head for the burbs, while well-heeled consumers rebel against big box tastelessness by patronizing rarefied shops downtown. Where does that leave someone who can't afford to drive out to the fringes - do we expect them to eat cake, or a ten dollar block of cheese?

I asked a question in to this effect in the Q and A session that followed Mitchell's lecture, and in her excellent response (I hope that the wine and cheese retailers in attendance were listening) she noted that local shops had better serve local residents, or else face rebellion when the big boxes come courting with low prices for practical goods. She also noted that Portland's retail scene, while changing, is far from completely gentrified: we still have Maine Hardware, Paul's Grocery, as well as the empty storefronts and porn stores on Congress Street.

Still, the old Surplus Store has been replaced by three tony food merchants. As one other guy asked me after the event, "where's a guy to get socks and underwear around here?"

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