Written by Lindsey Osborne
In a recent post on her blog, which can be found at carrierollwagen.com, Carrie Rollwagen makes some convicting statements. “I love talking about Amazon with booksellers because they get it. They get that I’m not being an alarmist when I say Amazon is trying to control the book industry (because anyone even remotely close to the industry sees that they are, and even Amazon doesn’t pretend otherwise),” she writes. “They get that having one entity—whether it’s a government, a person, or a company like Amazon—controlling our books is especially dangerous because that means one entity is in control of our access to information, and that’s like poison to a free society.” Rollwagen knows what she’s talking about. She’s the girl behind The Localist: Think Independent, Buy Local and Reclaim the American Dream, a book based off her blog Shop Small, which followed her journey to spend locally for an entire year. She’s also part owner of Church Street Coffee & Books, an independent coffee shop/bookstore in Crestline.
Rollwagen hasn’t always been a die-hard localist. Initially, she was just looking for something to blog about. “I don’t love confessional blogging for myself,” she explains. “I wanted a topic that I could focus on.” She had heard statistics about how shopping locally can have a big impact on the community in which you live. She was curious exactly what that meant—where and to whom did the dollars go? She decided she’d found her project. “I had heard that from every $10 you spend, if you spend it locally, $4–7 goes back into your community, and if you spend it corporately, it’s $1–3,” she says. “That’s a considerable amount. That’s the statistic I knew going in.”
She decided that over the course of a year—beginning on New Year’s Day in 2011—she would only buy things if they were sold at a locally owned shop or store. It doesn’t sound like that big of a deal until you consider everything that’s off limits: no Target trips to pick up toilet paper and snag a purse on clearance; no Starbucks stops on road trips; no Publix BOGO; no Old Navy 30 percent off sales; no Chick-Fil-A or Domino’s when you don’t feel like cooking dinner.
Instead, Rollwagen visited Zoe’s in Forest Park to shop for clothes. When she needed something for an art or home project, she stopped into Little Hardware in Mountain Brook. She got coffee from Urban Standard (and Church Street, of course) and really got to know Birmingham’s ever-expanding culinary scene on her nights out. “I knew there was a really good reason to buy local, because I’d heard that statistic,” she says. “But I really thought that it would be a lot more balanced, that I would say, ‘I miss Target’ and ‘This is so inconvenient.’ And as a writing project, I thought it would be good that way—it would have a plot. I would never be able to find anything. But it turns out that it was pretty easy.” She found that it was simple to find a way to buy the things she bought before—she’d just type whatever she was looking for into Google, add “Birmingham, AL,” and see what store popped up. It was an extra minute of effort, but one with a big payoff (remember that statistic.) Likewise, when she traveled, she found independently owned shops and restaurants by using apps like Yelp, instead of stopping at the convenient, right-off-the-Interstate spots. “It makes it more like you actually went somewhere, anyway,” she says of traveling that way.
One of Rollwagen’s concerns about her project—and one of my first questions—was the perceived added expense of buying everything from locally owned places. Take books, for example, one of Rollwagen’s favorite things to buy, and one of the things hardest to sell independently thanks to Amazon and other big box retailers. Visit Amazon and type in any title you want—you’ll see Amazon’s price in red, plus a slashed-out price next to it. That slashed-out price is often how much you’d pay at an independent bookstore. But it’s not just books. You pay $4 for a quart of strawberries at the farmer’s market, but $2.50 for a pint at a chain supermarket. It seems like Rollwagen’s expenses would double if she only bought things at independently owned stores, but she found that wasn’t the case. “I spent a lot less money—in fact, I spent only $15,000 the whole year,” she says.
She explains that there are a couple of reasons that this happened. For one, she became more mindful of her purchases, which helped cut out those impulse buys that almost everyone experiences while browsing at Target or on Amazon. “Impulse buying is one of those things we think we don’t do, but we really all do it,” she says. “Honestly, most independent stores don’t merchandise other things not related to their product line, so there are fewer things to buy on impulse.
“Also, having to plan out my week to see what I was shopping for helped me realize, ‘Oh, I don’t want that,’” she explains. “For example, I get super excited about projects, and I think, “I have to get chalkboard paint right now!’ But then I think, “Well, I’ll be in Mountain Brook next to Little Hardware on Wednesday, so I’ll just wait until Wednesday.’ And by Wednesday, I’m thinking, ‘I’m not going to do that project; what was I thinking?’”
Being more mindful can go a long way, and not just financially. Rollwagen shares another story of finding herself in the McDonald’s drive-thru at 2 a.m. for some French fries, a sin most of us have committed. “I know already that I shouldn’t be having French fries at 2 in the morning,” she says, laughing. “But I would sit there and realize, ‘Oh, this is not a small store. I can’t buy this.’” Her late night fourth meal was thwarted, but she makes a good point—should she have decided that 2 a.m. French fries were a decision she really wanted to make (and sometimes, that’s the right choice), she could easily have procured some from the locally owned Purple Onion down the street. But by giving herself parameters, she was able to stop and consider whether it was really worth it. “That moment of being like, ‘What am I doing here?’ was often all that it took to make me not want to buy something,” she explains.
Rollwagen says that in addition to all of this, the purchases that she did make were often higher quality and more specific to her need than the ones she’d make at big box stores. Something you’re almost always guaranteed when you buy local, she says, is the seller’s expertise. “Local store owners are usually experts in what they sell, and I bought a lot more things that were the right thing in the first place,” she says. “For example, I’d go to the hardware store, and they’d pretty much force me to tell them my project. And then they’d tell me if what I was buying wasn’t what I really needed. They’re also usually stocked with the things they think are the best. In a nutshell, I wasn’t buying as much crap.”
In the middle of her yearlong project, Rollwagen was suddenly afforded the opportunity to see the other side of it—she became a small business owner. At that point, she’d had good experiences working for both a small, independent business, Jonathan Benton, Bookseller, and a large corporation, Starbucks. She was at Starbucks at the time, the location in Crestline that has since morphed into Church Street Coffee. When she and her now-business partner, then-manager, Cal Morris, heard that Starbucks would be closing, they jumped at the chance to continue serving coffee to the Crestline community, but on their own terms—they would be community-driven.
Since they were in the same space that Starbucks had been, they did have a leg up. “Starbucks had been training people to come to that spot for coffee for a decade,” Rollwagen says. “I always tell people, ‘I speak Starbucks. You can just order in Starbucks, and I’ll make it.’ We wanted to offer everything they do. If someone is used to getting a sugar-free vanilla nonfat latte, we want to be able to offer that.” What does set Church Street—and most other independent coffee shops—apart from a national chain like Starbucks is the quality of their ingredients. For example, Church Street uses fresh Octane coffee, which is roasted here in Birmingham, and gets the syrups they don’t make in-house from O’Henry’s coffee shop. They also make their baked goods (including their famous Breakup Cookies that you must try right away if you haven’t yet) from scratch; most baked goods at national chains are made ahead of time, frozen, shipped to various locations, and then thawed for customers.
As the owner of Church Street, Rollwagen was able to see the many ways those $4–7 went back into the community. For example, all of the sources listed above for their coffee and baked goods are local spots, and Rollwagen says a truth found behind many independent businesses is that they shop independent, too, because they’re able to create relationships with the provider across town, which comes in handy when orders go wrong or supply is up and they need a quick turnaround. “Buying wholesale is very different than buying retail,” she explains. “You often get orders that are messed up or they don’t come in on time. It’s just a lot easier to call across town and say, ‘You brought us the wrong syrup.’”
In that way, Rollwagen says, local shops are supporting local shops—and she says she doesn’t care where you shop local, as long as you think about doing so. “In Birmingham, the coffee shop community is really supportive. A couple of people have apologized to me for going to another coffee shop, and I say, ‘No! As long as you’re going someplace independent,’” she says. “When you’re in my neighborhood, I want you to come to Church Street. When you’re downtown, I want you to go to Urban. I don’t expect you to drive to Crestline every time you want coffee—I don’t!”
Of course, the project has ended, but even now, four years later, Rollwagen continues to subscribe to the principles she learned then and the ones she’s seen in action in her own store. “There were a lot of good things about shopping locally. I don’t tell people, ‘You should only shop local.’ My cheesy elevator pitch is, ‘The best way to be a localist is to shop localish,’” she says. “A lot of the pushback I would get when I was doing this is, ‘We can’t have all local,’ and I agree—we can’t have all local. It’s a global economy. But we can appreciate the local we have as an important option. I think it’s OK to prioritize local first and only shop corporate as a last resort, which is the opposite of what we do now. I shop 80–90 percent locally now.”
She wrote her book, The Localist (which hit late last year), because she’s been so impacted by what she’s learned. She doesn’t expect you to spend a year only buying locally; she just wants to encourage you to be more mindful of your purchases. “Sometimes people come into my store and they take a picture of a book I’m recommending and tell me, ‘Thanks for your recommendation! I’m going to get it on Amazon,’” she says, “and they don’t understand why that’s wrong.” She spent the first half of 2015 on her book tour—visiting only independent bookshops (traveling by train)—getting her message out: Shop small. Think before you buy. Consider the power of your dollars.
And while she still occasionally finds herself in Target, she says that now it’s much easier to choose to spend her dollars locally. “I really wanted it to be more balanced,” she says of her blog. “But almost always, it came out in favor of the independents.”
You can buy The Localist by visiting localistbook.com.