Living — and Buying — Locally

Try buying a souvenir T-shirt these days and you can see through the window that it’s half off, but the store is never open. Need some watertight Wellington boots, however, and you can find them here all winter during normal business hours. There are good Island businesses committed to serving Islanders’ needs, but the state of the economy is making every retailer’s challenge greater. We are all shopping less, so we all ought to shop strategically when we do.

Consumption is not something Vineyarders like to flout, and that’s to our credit. Still, we need shoes and we want to frame the family photograph from the holidays, and a new book or sweater can brighten up a dark day. And, even with a growing commitment to eating locally, most of us rely on the supermarket for much of what goes into our meals, particularly at this time of year. So it’s worth considering the broader philosophy of shopping locally.

Retailers provide the largest proportion of the Island’s economy, rivaled only by the construction sector. Thankfully, Vineyarders have fought considerable battles to preserve an identity apart from suburbia, by objecting to chain restaurants and stores. Yet many of us routinely make off-Island trips to “stock up,” and of course it is even more tempting when we all are worried about our wallets.

Consider, though, that as big box chain stores have grown, the result has been the loss of tens of thousands of independent retailers and their employees. A study by David Neumark at the University of California-Irvine found that every new Wal-Mart store eliminates many more retail jobs than it creates.

Such stores have had the cascading effect of driving manufacturing overseas and wages down, and they rarely give back to their communities the way local stores do. A study in Maine by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance found that only 14 cents of a dollar spent at a big box store remains in the state’s economy, while independent retailers spend more than half their revenue locally. As a researcher there put it: “They bank at local banks, hire local accountants, advertise in local media, and require many other local services that chains do not. For mid-sized and smaller cities especially, this is a vital source of economic activity and jobs that pay a middle-class income.”

The Vineyard’s retail landscape is changing, as it does from time to time and often in sync with the seasons. But our local stores provide year-round jobs and services, needed more than ever this year. Edgartown Books is open this winter for the first time, while Bunch of Grapes is up seven days a week in its temporary quarters. LeRoux at Home can inspire a great winter stew with a single new knife. At stores like The Green Room in Vineyard Haven or Basics on Circuit avenue, you can find the clogs you need in winter as well as the Crocs that sell in summer. Bowl & Board has the frame you need for that photograph. Sun Dog in Edgartown has foul-weather gear ready when the weather turns foul. Sure, you could buy it all online or off-Island. You might even get it cheaper. But when you do, you make it harder for local stores to be here next time, when you need it in a hurry.

Consumers still have much to weigh up, so the Gazette this week begins weekly reports on prices at Island gas stations and grocery stores. Similarly, we showcased last week how well-fed you can get at Island restaurants for less than twenty dollars, and we hope to do more investigative eating. Islanders do want to help sustain a prosperous business community here, but they want to do it wisely. We hope our readers find this a valuable added service from another local business, the Vineyard Gazette.