Will Berkeley residents buy goods and services in town more than they do now? Councilmember Linda Maio believes education is the answer to preserving customers for the independent businesses that pump character and cash into the community.
She is sponsoring the Preferred Berkeley Business program and has requested a $25,000 allocation from next year’s budget that’s up for consideration at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
The allocation would pay for a staff person to coordinate the program. She said the city’s Economic Development staff has suggested that $70,000 might eventually be needed to fully fund a promotional campaign that makes a difference.
“But we’re going to get started more slowly,” Maio said.
Preferred Berkeley essentially would be a promotional campaign using emblems or decals displayed prominently in storefronts of businesses that qualify to be included in the program.
Criteria for qualifying have not yet been determined, but Maio mentioned some possibilities: small and locally owned businesses where the owner would pay good salaries and health benefits, perhaps to employees who live in town, and become involved in a community project.
In her proposal she is combating the “sameness” that people encounter when cities all have the same stores that look the same and sell the same things and price out the independents.
The other detractor from the local independent retailers is e-commerce, which Maio said is “siphoning off the retail vitality.”
The pleasures of browsing – not on the Web but in a store – are at stake.
“We have to become a little more aware of where we put our dollars,” said Maio. “It’s very much a part of the equation of keeping them alive.”
It’s happening all over country, she noted, and “it’s not very healthy. We lose our diversity and experience as people.”
The idea came out of Maio’s working with Fourth Street businesses in her district.
“I’m interested in bookstores in particular,” she said. “They are such an asset in town and we really have to work hard to preserve them.”
Herb Bivins, an owner of Black Oak Books on North Shattuck Avenue said the idea seems good.
“I would hope it would work. Some people would respond and I think it is probably worth the effort, but it is always hard to gauge,” he said.
“Berkeley is in a tough spot,” he concedes, whether the competition comes from Amazon.com or from other businesses already in Berkeley. Black Oak sells used books on the Internet.
“It’s really trying to get people to shop in local stores, and not go to the chains.”
Bivins said an important difference between a local independent store and a “big box” retailer is that the local merchant returns money into the community not to far-flung stockholders.
Another aspect of the role small businesses can play is in providing salaries above living wage guidelines and “treating employees like human beings,” he said.
John McBride, an employee in the rare book room at Moe’s Books on Telegraph Avenue, a 35-year-old store that has had a web site for five years, said the program’s effectiveness would depend upon the kind of publicity it generates.
“The chains have their role but the independents drive the scene,” McBride contends.