By Colin Read
Issue: October 2022
Small is beautiful was the message and title of a book by the economist E. F. Schumacher in 1973. In an era when corporations were growing to gobble up America, when just five years earlier the dystopian movie 2001: A Space Odyssey warned us about corporations such as IBM with its reference to the rocket ship’s computer HAL, and when some were arguing it was time to break up ATT, people were wondering if indeed bigger is always better. Almost fifty years later, most probably agree that the answer is no.
Schumacher’s words are as relevant today as they were then. He anticipated the need to think local half a century ago, and he warned us about the perils of treating our natural resources as if they were expendable.
Rural counties like ours understand living within our means and circulating income. Farmers are our “think small” originalists. They realize the need to care for our surroundings and to buy local from others as they would have others buy from them. Farmers live to subsist sustainably and so do smart communities. The mom-and-pops rose out of this rural tradition. As I drive to my farm in Mooers, I pass villages in Beekmantown, in Chazy, in Sciota, and then in Mooers. Each of these communities were once a two hour walk from each other, so each needed a general store, a church or two, a gas station, and maybe even a drug store, blacksmith and hardware store.
These stores sold local products and sustained local jobs. Each were also the lifeblood of their communities, their markets, bulletin boards, and their town halls. Likewise, each of myriad surrounding farms might have had a section or a quarter section of land, and employed families and farmhands.
There was a day when agricultural communities represented half of our nation’s production and even more of our jobs. Now, agriculture represents only a couple percent of our jobs and GDP, and long gone are our general stores.
Now, when I drive the same route once plied by horse and buggy, I pass three Dollar Stores in a span of about 15 miles.
These bigger box general stores have replaced the family stores of yore, and, ironically enough, remain the same five miles apart, but have replaced the local fabric and the ready outlet for local produce.
The car perhaps made our mom-and-pop stores an endangered economic species, but the sensibility of buying local and shopping small remains as relevant today as it was back when.
Not only do our locally owned stores manage to keep our income circulating in our local economy, but they also provide a type of personalized service that no national chain can possibly muster.
In this post-Covid era when we have a thirst for local contact and personal interactions, and when our local economies are reeling, buying local is even more important. These entrepreneurs know us. When I needed to know if a part I was looking for was compatible with my NYSEG electrical service, it was difficult to get a concise specification from that Spanish-owned company. But my local Hynes Electric counterperson immediately determined what I needed and matched me up with a part that was less expensive than what I could get on Amazon and provided the personalized service and local knowledge that is the secret sauce of local businesses.
We all seek to economize in these inflationary times, and buying local may seem like a small benefit in a given transaction, but in the scheme of things small is still beautiful.
Dr. Colin Read is a professor of economics and finance at SUNY Plattsburgh’s School of Business & Finance. You can read his weekly blogs on the economy at www.everybodysbusiness.online.