We all do it. (Don’t we?) We think we need a product a.s.a.p., so we open up our Internet browser, punch a few keys, and click on “Buy now.” We secretly justify it because, really, Amazon Prime gets here in two days. We just can’t buy it in person—unless we hop in our car and make the hour-plus trek to Idaho Falls.
But the choice is ours: Buy local or don’t. And with a collective M.O. of getting items on the cheap, on-the-fly, and with the click of a button, making a conscious shift to expand relationships through the act of purchasing can set our mountain community apart. It’s a gesture that goes way beyond enhancing the local economy and, it could be argued, one that is ultimately our responsibility as neighbors.
I know I’m guilty of outside spending—even despite my best efforts. But I also buy locally. By purchasing gifts, home goods, recreational items, and food from local retailers, farmers, and restaurants, I’m doing our town a service that extends far beyond the pocketbook. The hidden bennies of conscious effort sometimes evade me in the emotional heat of the purchase. But, when I give them some thought, I realize they are cultural gems that enhance the community vibe.
It’s the Handshake Deal
According to a National Post article, “The handshake is one of the highest forms of symbolic currency.” Urban Dictionary defines it as, “The most sacred form of sealing a deal.” But for mountain-town retailers, the handshake deal (technically a verbal commitment to a transaction) is an allegiance to friendship.
“It’s all about supporting your neighbors,” says Mitch Prissel, manager of outdoor retailer Habitat in Driggs. “The more you can support your local economy, the more you support your neighbors and their families.” He explains that there is a camaraderie that goes along with exchanging money for product (in his case, skis, snowboards, bikes, and so forth).
“If you see someone in the grocery store and they just bought a bike or a pair of skis from you, they are going to feel more comfortable asking you a question [about ski conditions, trails, etc.], and you are going to feel more comfortable providing the information,” Prissel says. “It’s a friendship that can only form on the local level. You can’t get it online.”
The Local Multiplier Effect, a term used by advocates of “spend local” campaigns, refers to how many times a dollar gets recirculated in a local economy before being spent elsewhere. It’s a concept that’s relatively easy to grasp, but one that doesn’t take into account the act of referring a neighbor’s service. Since our retail shops in Driggs, Victor, and Tetonia serve as information portals for new residents and visitors, an in-shop transaction can lend opportunity for business to bloom outside of the store, too.
“If somebody new in town comes into the shop asking what to do, where to go, or who to call for a certain service or product, I have this network of friendships that exists among local customers who provide all sorts of business services,” says Prissel. “Whether it’s construction or another service, as a retailer, I am going to refer my friends [to the newcomer] and continue the circle of business in my community.”
When a new resident forms a rapport with shop employees, he or she looks to them as liaisons to their new community. It’s like a covert “Welcome Wagon.”
It’s the Uniqueness of Place
Small-scale community spending, and the intimacy that goes with it, fosters a type of creativity among local artisans and vendors. Whether we’re talking about a product, a service, or a style of food, creativity makes our community unique.
“It’s hard to live in a small valley sometimes,” says Alyson Harlan, Winter Farmer’s Market director and garden associate at MD Nursery in Driggs. “Even though we all love it and try to help each other [by purchasing one another’s products and services], it’s still really about our bottom lines.”
Harlan explains that, in Teton Valley, you can see exactly how your dollar affects people, as they build houses and grow their families. This economic fruitfulness permits a leeway for residents to explore their crafts more deeply, as continued demand for their product blossoms. “It makes you as excited to buy their products as they are [to be able] to pay their bills,” says Harlan.
You can see this firsthand at MD Nursery, which sells gifts, jewelry, and artwork from local vendors. Their products, to name a few, include jewelry from Michelle Miller of Magpie; screen-printed tile work from Elisa Davis of Rivertime Designs; screen-printed hats, prints, and greeting cards from Aimee Babneau Art; and fused glass jewelry and garden hangers from Nancy Miller of SeaStar Fused Glass. They also purchase the services of graphic designer Stacey Walker Oldham for their logos and brochures. A walk through the MD gift shop gives visitors a sampling of what separates our community from others, as both locals and visitors can buy a little piece of Teton Valley from the supported artists.
Pam Walker, executive director of the Teton Valley Education Foundation, enjoys sharing local shops and restaurants with her visitors. “They get to meet local people and buy things that are unique to our community,” she says. “It’s the boutique stores and good restaurants that make Teton Valley distinctive to visitors and irreplaceable to residents.”
It’s About Giving Back
The Teton Valley Education Foundation’s Shop for Schools initiative benefits both valley businesses and the local school system. Held on the first Saturday of December, this fundraiser’s mission is to urge people to shop locally, while also donating to a good cause. Each shop keeps track of their day’s sales and donates either a percent of their sales or a flat amount to the education foundation.
Walker says that the funds raised through the event help take “learning beyond the textbooks,” by contributing to things like Driggs Elementary School’s family science night; tower gardens at Rendezvous Upper Elementary and Victor Elementary schools; hosting the Shakespeare Festival; and funding the robotics program at the high school. The Shop for Schools initiative raises approximately $15,000 annually for grants awarded to teachers for use in their classrooms and for special projects.
Walker explains the reciprocal advertising efforts that go into this event via flyers in schools and around town, social media posts, and ornaments hung in participating shop windows. She thinks it’s important for families to shop locally and support the businesses that support the foundation. “It [also] shows our students that we like to pay it forward,” she says.
Prissel agrees, stressing the importance of the cycle of such an event. “By participating in this event, we back our customers who work in the school system—the administrators and teachers that deal with our kids every day. It’s just one more level of support that shows we believe in them.”
For the Health of Your Family
No doubt buying local food is just plain healthier. But for mountain town residents, it’s relatively easy to fall off the local food wagon during the winter. That’s why in 2014 MD Nursery created their Winter Farmer’s Market as a way for farmers and local producers to sell their goods in the winter. The event also serves as a space for families to gather, visit, and listen to music. In addition to food and craft vendors, there is always one nonprofit table and a weekly raffle for a gift basket filled with vendor goodies. Attendees earn raffle tickets with each vendor purchase; there is no money exchanged for the raffle.
Lisa Hanley, owner of Forage Bistro & Lounge, tackles the winter food slump by serving primarily whole foods to her customers. Some of Forage’s offerings are still sourced locally, like goat meat from Thistle Creek Farms in Victor, cheese from Lark’s Meadow Farms in Rexburg, and bread from 460Bread in Driggs. Most everything they make is handmade and their dishes are void of pre-made sauces.
“You just feel better eating [food made from scratch],” she says.
Hanley also stresses the camaraderie that forms when people eat locally. “It helps keep the businesses in business when the tourist season is slow,” she says. But during busy times, locals are also more understanding if a hiccup in service happens. “We get a little more grace from the locals and it gives it all a more personalized feel,” she says.
It all comes down to sustainability—not just community economics, but the relationships that exist among locals. “Shopping local fosters close and deep connections between producers and consumers,” Harlan says. “Close because there are fewer middlemen. And deep because we live and breathe amongst one another. Community pride develops from a successful partnership. And pride in place gives way to a rich vitality.”