By Amy Brachmann
Much like the rest of the country, Chicago has a multitude of local businesses and customer supporters. Even with the economy struggling, the local business movement seems to be going strong—even gaining.
April Jervis, executive director of Local First Chicago, says the local business movement has “exploded in the last year.” Local First Chicago’s newsletter subscriptions went from about 1,000 to more than 18,000. The average week sees ten businesses apply for membership, and the number of participating businesses has gone from about 200 to more than 2,600 in the last twelve months.
“Obviously, there’s a big jump in interest,” Jervis says. “I think it’s a really hot topic for people right now.”
She says the best way to measure the success of the local business movement is by the public response. Those at Local First Chicago “see the ways the public is becoming more and more interested,” she says. “I think, in general, people in Chicago are very concerned with local business. That’s a big part of what makes Chicago Chicago.”
She says there has been a jump in the number of local businesses opening, and the sentiment from existing local businesses seems positive, too.
Sarah Chazin, owner of Sacred Art gallery, says the local movement has beaten the bad economy because “things are more expensive but people are willing to spend a bit more because of the grander scheme.”
Green Grocer owner Cassie Green says her store definitely feels it, but is still doing well. “People are realizing megastores don’t care, but local businesses truly care about every customer because every customer matters.” Jervis also says Green Grocer offers “things I couldn’t get anywhere else.”
Brandon Will, an employee at Book Cellar, says the shop hasn’t lost its regulars, which he believes is because employees care about customers and what they do. “Everybody who works here is here because they love books. We all get excited about books and local authors, and people,” he says. “That’s why stores like us will always have something the bigger ones don’t.”
The people behind these local businesses believe in the value of both their own ventures and other local businesses in their neighborhoods.
“As a consumer, I would much rather support somebody who lives in the same city,” says Holly Greenhagen, co-owner of Dame Couture, which sell custom-made wedding dresses and gowns. “If you’re buying from someone who’s your neighbor, you can trust them more.”
In Green’s eyes, local businesses also make for stronger community. “We’re incredibly committed to what goes in the community,” she says. “Not just our business, but safety and schools and other stores, too.”
Chazin believes the value lies in personal relationships and “soul, primarily soul.” The gallery owner says local businesses care about customers, remember their names and what they like, and make them comfortable. Without local businesses, it would be “terribly boring, not very arty, not very creative.”
That’s why these businesses try to turn around and ‘buy local’ themselves, in both business expenses and personal shopping.
At Book Cellar, “all the café foods come from down the street, all the sandwiches come from a local caterer and pastries come from a local bakery,” Will says. “It really is pretty much people from the neighborhood, even the guy who washes the windows.” The bookstore also tries to support local authors and publishers as much as possible.
Greenhagen admits Dame Couture is “not a hundred percent great on that” because it’s hard to find local supplies and fabric, but the formal dress shop uses all local seamstresses.
Green Grocer obtains much of its produce from Chicago and Midwest vendors, and—including liquor purchases, advertising and construction—spends fifty to sixty percent of its costs locally. “We try to go back and support the same ideas our customers support,” Green says.
Staying local is easiest for Sacred Art, and Chazin estimates ninety-nine percent of her costs stay in town, largely because she obtains art from local and emerging artists and purchases supplies here. But she also makes an effort to shop local: “I’m a customer and not just a colleague.” In fact, she loves Book Cellar.
These individuals seem to be part of a strong network of local business owners, employees and devoted customers keeping each other going despite a troubled economy and attempts by large corporations to capitalize on local momentum. Overall, they don’t see a big threat from their chain competitors.
“It’s a whole different thing that we offer,” says Book Cellar’s Will. “In a box warehouse, it’s pretty impersonal … you’re not getting anything unique.”
Chazin agrees that Sacred Art occupies its own spot in the market. “I sell local and emerging art, and I don’t think any other place can say that,” she says. “I just try to bring one person at a time from mass-produced pieces to one-of-a-kind art.”
“It’s almost an entirely different ball game,” Green says of megastore competition. “There’s a place in the world for us and a place in the world for Whole Foods.”
Regarding national chains like Whole Foods exploiting the local label, these owners see that but don’t feel threatened by it. Jervis says it happens everywhere, even though it’s disingenuous. “It might happen to be close to your house, but it’s really not independently owned,” she says.
Because it draws attention to the movement, she sees some benefit to major corporations promoting buying local, but they don’t follow through like local businesses do. “That means jobs in Chicago, that means a smaller economic footprint, and the money is staying in the community.”
She also doesn’t think nationwide chains can distract the local business movement because shoppers who care can easily check the facts. “If someone says they’re local and they’re really not, there’s an infinite amount of information out there to combat that,” such as Local First Chicago’s Web site, she says. “And I don’t think anyone really believes large box stores who say they’re local.”