RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Buy Local

Every now and then, the cosmos lets us know that the bumbling way we’ve lived, finding pleasure in Midwestern burgs far from either legitimating coast has become, somehow, acceptable and, more astonishing, even smart or hip. The last time that happened, it was an article in the New York Times that tipped us off. The writer said that antique dealers had issued an edict that collectors don’t have to dust their furniture any more. The dust, the article said, was a sign of authenticity.

That fits my belief perfectly. So I cut the article out and hung it on the refrigerator where every visitor could see it. Finally, over the years, the article disintegrated. Looking back, I wonder why I didn’t laminate it.

But never mind. At the end of October, an article in the Wall Street Journal said that, hey, we’re cutting edge again. The art world, the journal says, is buying art from artists close to home. Forgive me for the long quote, but I can’t resist: “In Detroit, major collector and steel company executive Gary Wasserman says he’s stopped buying works by England’s Anish Kapoor and China’s Yue Minjun so he can focus more on buying ‘powerfully Midwestern’ art by artists like Brian Carpenter, whose $1,000 photographs often feature images of dead deer, Lake Erie nuclear reactors and snowy footprints.”

We have a houseful of similar treasures. One of my favorites, a picture of an old refrigerator taken from a weird angle by a college student, must be worth thousands by now, although I’m not about to sell. And all the paintings of rural scenes that we’ve found at art fairs around the state … our walls are full.

The article says that Swiss collectors are buying Swiss pieces for their homes in the Alps, Miami buyers are looking in Miami and California collectors are buying from California. The buy-local movement has crept into home décor.

This is great news, especially so close to the buying frenzy holiday season. Buying local art means you’re giving two gifts — one to the artist and one to your beloved. And, if you buy a painting, or a scarf, quilt, chair or coffee mug, from a local artist, that person might spend the income on, say, lunch at a local diner. And the diner owner might order cheese from a local farm. And the farmer might buy straw from a neighbor and the neighbor might invest in the art gallery. See? The entire community benefits.

And, as the community benefits, there’s a chance that you and your family will share in the good fortune. Maybe you have a high school kid that needs an after-school job. Where will that kid learn more? Working for a neighbor that produces something or adjusting to the cog-in-a-machine of the big box store?

One great thing about small businesses is that they can be started with small investments. In my community, at the same time that the big newspapers are reporting problems and threatening that they’ll go out of business, recent journalism grads have started little newspapers. We have three in our rural county now and a half dozen more in the county seat we call “Big Town.” It’s easy to dismiss these rags as “shoppers,” because of their large number of low-cost ads. Or you can deride them as entertainment weeklies because they run rather generic stories about local tourist sites, but one or two of these journals will develop into serious media.

Small businesses, when they get in trouble, can be rescued by a team of devoted customers. Every now and then, a business in our town asks for help getting over a slow time. A letter goes out, and those who can help send in a few bucks. The payback may come in a few months or a year, but it always comes with lasting gratitude and a coupon for future services.

Economists once talked about the multiplier effect of dollars. They studied how many times a dollar changed hands and predicted that a dollar spent with a local vendor changed hands four to six times, paying bills and creating a tax base that paid for local government. In contrast, money spent at the big box store left town immediately. Increasing the amount spent locally paid better as more people put money into the system.

Buying local means investing locally also. Consider the folly of building a retirement income from Wall Street investments. Better to buy a bit of income property, or help a friend start a business than put money into investments where you have no oversight and no control.

But I’ve digressed from the point, which is buying local for the holidays. Still stuck for the perfect gift for that special someone? Expanding the definition of “community” to mean an American community of like-minded folks meeting in journals like The Progressive Populist, a journal that treats workers fairly and preserves resources, we find another way to support our community and build power.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2009

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2009 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652