A sense of community is important to most of us. We join clubs, sports teams, civic and arts organizations, historical associations—groups that represent our interests. There’s strength in numbers and satisfaction in knowing that we’re part of something significant. The push to buy local, heightened recently by an economy where average Americans still struggle, is another example. Supporting small local businesses helps your neighbor, keeps money in the community, and benefits us all.
The ideas behind Buy Local movements seem new, exciting, sensible—and two out of three ain’t bad. Exciting and sensible, for sure. But new? New-ish, maybe? Not even close.
Pleading, begging, encouraging, cajoling, and instructing the public on why buying local is important have been components of the “movement” for well over a century. And for most of that time, the reasons given for buying local have remain unchanged.
Before rail lines linked towns and villages, populations were relatively immobile. Each settlement that grew and survived did so through a reliance on local services. Dry-good stores, blacksmiths, lumber mills, shoemakers, and the like were found in every thriving settlement. Symbiosis was the key, with everyone in a community relying on each other in some fashion, either as consumer or provider.
Trains brought the first real opportunity for mass mobility, making it easier to travel and thus purchase goods and services outside the community. Newspapers, supported by the advertising dollars of local businesses, urged consumers to remain loyal to hometown companies. Likewise, the proliferation of mail-order firms caused an upsurge in Buy Local movements, generally known long ago as Buy At Home. While most newspapers accepted advertising from at least some mail-order companies, they also stood strong behind the Buy At Home concept.
In the Adirondack region, consumers were urged to avoid freight costs by buying local. In border towns, an added reason for shopping in the community was to avoid paying duties at customs. But for the most part, from around 1870 to the present, the reasons given to buy local haven’t changed. Why, you might ask? That’s an easy one. The reasons to buy local haven’t changed because they’re just as smart, sensible, and true as ever.
As thousands of writers have said for hundreds of years, buying from truly local businesses supports YOU as well as them. Local firms pay for local goods and services, spreading profits within the community. They support local churches, arts organizations, fundraisers, schools, cemeteries, and community projects, both in word and action. Virtually ALL money paid to them stays local.
Large companies that move into smaller communities know this, so they often adopt a plan of public giving that makes them seem more like community members than business rivals. But as Buy Local proponents assert, most of the money spent in those large firms goes elsewhere.
Historically, that has always been the claim. Old North Country newspapers provide evidence that little has changed in a fight still going on today. The issues back then were mail-order purchases and buying out of town. Among the principal issues today are mail order (Internet shopping) and buying from big-box stores, where money changes hands in town, but most of it goes out of town. The following baker’s dozen of newspaper snippets (1870–1963) bear familiar themes. (Most contain editing for brevity.)
Lowville, 1870: If you do not support home enterprise, how do you expect to be sustained yourself in a home business? If you have any money to spare, be sure to use it in your community. The only way to build up and keep a town alive is to spend your money at home.
Watertown, 1871: The material prosperity of a village is alone dependent upon her own citizens, whose duty to themselves and their neighbors is to patronize home industry and trade. They must necessarily mutually aid and depend upon each other.
Ogdensburg and Troy, 1874: The idea of standing by home merchants, home dealers, and home enterprises is a sound one. We must help one another in order to help ourselves. Failing to do that, we shall fail in that first principle of patriotism, which teaches allegiance to family, to the place of our residence, to all the interests of home, as essential to good citizenship.
Ticonderoga, 1897: Every time you buy an article of a home merchant, you are helping him build up a business that will help pay your taxes by helping support the institutions in which you are interested. You are giving him a profit that goes into the business life of the community.
Ticonderoga, 1916: The Ticonderoga Sentinel … will publish compelling, powerful, stories showing WHY it pays to buy at home. To the buying public we say, watch for the Buy At Home page with its real values, and reasons why you should stick to your home merchants.
Cape Vincent, 1923: When you make your purchases from the merchants of your own city and county, your money remains in circulation in your district and you benefit indirectly. But when you buy from outside points, your money leaves home to the detriment of your locality. Buy At Home and help in the legitimate growth of your town.
Plattsburgh, 1930: When you patronize Clinton County concerns, you are adding to the value of your investment. The reason is plain. Your local businessman spends his life here. He is interested in its development, its schools, its churches, its banks, its highways. He is a hearty contributor to all movements that maintain our collective prosperity. You are “selling Clinton County short,” when you patronize other than home stores, when you send mail orders to distant concerns. You are sending your money OUT OF THE COMMUNITY, concentrating it in the great money centers. BUY AT HOME! Keep your money in Clinton County.
Lake Placid, 1933: Support for the Buy-At-Home movement was urged, but some merchants themselves purchased from out-of-town sources even when products were available in Lake Placid. In response to those reports, nearly every village business, 53 in all, agreed to purchase only from chamber of commerce members for a 90-day period and then meet to assess the results.
Essex County, 1935: The county Buy-At-Home program described itself as a Civil Loyalty Campaign, emphasizing that the more consumers bought locally, the more those stores could add different and new stock, improving the customers’ options. The follow-up point: “It is local merchants and service firms which respond to every charitable enterprise, every united civic endeavor. They know their patrons personally and give them welcome when they come.”
Tupper Lake, 1938: Remember that your local dealer gives you service which no out-of-town business can supply. At his own risk, he brings in products for you to examine first-hand and accept or reject. He stands behind those products, services them, and makes good on any defective merchandise because he intends to continue in business here and needs your good will.
Plattsburgh, 1953: When you spend your money in Plattsburgh, it stays in Plattsburgh and will be spent over and over again. When citizens unite in their buying force, a portion of every expenditure helps maintain the many conveniences essential to our safety, comfort, and well-being. Our hospital, police, fire departments, library, parks, playgrounds, and streets are the direct result of community buying.
True, the individual pays taxes for this purpose, but the business concerns of Plattsburgh shoulder the greater part of the burden because of their greater taxation. If it were not for them, our tax quota would have to be higher. Community buying means greater employment. The more we buy at home, the greater the need for additional clerks. Let this community be our headquarters for all our needs, large or small.
Ticonderoga, 1963: Increased business for local merchants means increased income for the community. This means that local buyers, who trade at home, will have a part in improving the standard of living for local families. You may not be interested in the economic welfare of your fellow citizens until you realize that, as they prosper, you may expect to prosper. The welfare of local merchants affects other people, including employees, and everyone else who expects to sell them anything.
If you think most of those commentaries don’t hold true today, you probably haven’t tried running a small business. It’s not just about money, but also about people, and social interaction, and worth, and satisfaction, and feeling a part of something special. Those are all great reasons to be in business, which most of us can’t be without community support. And in that regard, money does matter.
Join the old-fashioned economic circle of life. When you can, buy local.
Photos: Ogdensburg Daily Journal, 1874; Ti Sentinel, 1917; Essex County Republican, 1935; Tupper Lake Free Press, 1938; Plattsburgh Press-Republican, 1953