Pre-Winter Institute Local First Conference Wows

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

On Thursday, January 29, more than 200 people gathered for ABA's Pre-Winter Institute Conference on Local First/Shop Local Initiatives in Salt Lake City, Utah. The full day of programming provided attendees an opportunity to learn from some of the most experienced leaders in the IBA community, who shared their experiences creating and sustaining successful programs.

"I thought it went really well," said Local First advocate Betsy Burton of The King's English, who helped organize the event. "I was wildly elated at the turnout.... I am really encouraged. The word is spreading. I think [the Local First message] comes at a crucial time. No one has much discretionary income, so growing loyalty could be the difference for locally owned businesses."

Based on the experiences of booksellers who attended the event and later spoke with BTW, the day was a big success.

"I thought the day was revelatory," said Joe Drabyak of Chester County Book and Music Company in West Chester, Pennsylvania. "It was phenomenally good and very insightful. I was particularly impressed with the speakers and the presentations. And I enjoyed the visit to [Rico's]... I am very encouraged to develop similar things in my community."

Terry Tempest Williams

"It was wonderful -- very informative regarding both the specifics and the big philosophical issues," said Ellen Scott of The Bookworm in Omaha, Nebraska. "I enjoyed meeting representatives from AMIBA [Jeff Milchen, American Independent Business Alliance] and BALLE [Laury Hammel, Business Alliance for Local Living Economies]." And, of special note, she said, was author Terry Tempest Williams' moving speech at the lunch event.

The full-day program included welcome remarks by ABA COO Oren Teicher, who noted, "Your presence reflects just one more bit of evidence about the growing resonance of the Shop Local/Local First effort.... This has truly become a national movement that is gaining more and more traction every day. And we think there is no better place to have a discussion about this movement than right here in Salt Lake City. As many of you know, Salt Lake City and Utah are the center of one of the most innovative and successful Local First efforts in the country and today's program draws heavily on the enormous expertise and experience that has been developed in this state."

Following Teicher, and leading into the morning workshops, was Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, who offered his firsthand experience of the community's Local First efforts from the view of government.

Stacy Mitchell, author of Big Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for American's Independent Businesses (Beacon) and senior researcher for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), then provided insights on the challenges and opportunities facing IBAs. "We face a really difficult economic climate right now, but we also, I think, have an extraordinary opportunity because the one positive of all of this is that a lot of people out there have sort of woken up and said, 'You know, we need to get back to fundamentals. We need to get back to a real economy that's based on people exchanging goods and services that are real and useful,'" she said as reported by Deseret News.

Mitchell referred those in attendance to ILSR's recent survey of 1,142 independent retailers across all 50 states, which found that holiday sales at independent stores declined an average of 5% from the same period in 2007, a better result than overall retail sales and sales at stores open at least a year of most competing chains. In cities with active Buy Local campaigns, she said, the results were even better. Indie retail sales were down on average just 3.2%, compared to a steeper decline of 5.6% for those in cities without an active Buy Local initiative.

Burton told her bookselling colleagues that, while these are scary times for all businesses, "we indies have an advantage, that advantage being that we are locally owned independent businesses.... People are suddenly in love with local -- with local business, with local food, and most of all, with their local communities." However, the local love affair didn't just happen: "Independent Business Alliances and Local Firsts all over the country have been walking the talk, helping local businesses brand themselves as local, as independent.... They've educated the public and government alike about the benefits of local."

Burton concluded by noting how the Obama administration says it is looking to get dollars to Main Street. She then called on anyone who knows someone who is working with the administration to explain to them the economic value of locally owned businesses to the community. "Tell them that the 'node model,' to wit, seed money to hire a community organizer, and a good PR person, if one isn't already part of your Local First or IBA, could have a profound effect on business communities and local economies nationwide. Tell them the seed money to accomplish this will be negligible compared to the billions now being pumped into so-called big business." (See related story.)

Following the conference's morning workshops, which were targeted toward booksellers' varying levels of experience with Local First campaigns, community-focused author Terry Tempest Williams (Finding Beauty in a Broken World, Pantheon) wowed the audience at lunch. "The real work of independent bookstores is tangible, it is transformative, and it is based on personal passion not just for profit," she told the lunch crowd. "The independent booksellers that I know, those of you in this room, could all be called mayors, doctors, therapists, philosophers, political activists, and community organizers. Change makers, extraordinaire. But most of all, you are storytellers and story lovers. And I thank you from the bottom of my own independent heart. Without you, writers like me would have no voice." (Read the full transcript of Williams' presentation.)

"Terry Tempest Williams' speech was incredibly moving and passionate as she talked about the ethos of place and the interconnectedness of all things in our communities, including social, environmental, and business life," said Vicky Uminowicz of Titcomb's Bookshop in East Sandwich, Massachusetts.

Left to right: Steven Rosenberg, Jane Shock, Leigh vonderEsch, Betsy Burton, David Nimkin, Soren Simonsen, and Peter Corroon.

Following Williams' speech, booksellers gathered for the afternoon workshop, "Establishing Critical Connections: How to Broaden the Appeal and Value of Your IBA So That Governments and Other Institutions Will Support and Sustain It." The discussion brought together a panel of government and business leaders who revealed how building a strong critical mass of local business partners and linking the Local First movement to local, county, and state governments is key to the success of IBAs. The workshop was moderated and facilitated by David Nimkin, the Southwest regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association, and co-founder and vice chair of Local First Utah. Panelists were Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon; Salt Lake City Council Member Soren Simonsen; Utah State Director of Tourism and Local First Utah Board Member Leigh vonderEsch; American Express U.S. Banking, Vice President/Center for Community Development Jane Shock; and local business leader and food purveyor Steven Rosenberg of Liberty Heights Fresh.

The day concluded with a visit to Rico Mexican Market and Catering, a prominent Salt Lake City indie business.

"The Shop Local Day was so inspirational and packed with really practical information, too," Uminowicz summed up. "I can't believe we got to hear so many leaders of the Shop Local movement all in one place -- Stacy Mitchell, Jeff Milchen, Laurie Hammel, as well as so many people from Local First Utah -- including the amazing Betsy Burton.... I'm so happy I was able to attend this conference and grateful to the ABA for sponsoring it." --Dave Grogan