Public Comment

Commentary: Buying Local Improves Our Community

By Deborah Badhia
Friday December 14, 2007

Did you know that by shifting just 10 percent of your purchases to locally owned businesses, you can start a cycle that creates more jobs in Berkeley, lightens the city’s environmental impact, expands your own shopping options, builds a stronger community, and helps keep our city a national innovator? 

Just over 40 years ago, Alfred Peet opened a coffee store on Vine Street that revolutionized how Americans drink coffee. The “specialty coffee” industry and Starbucks grew directly out of Peet’s. Some even credit Peet’s with sharpening Americans’ taste buds to appreciate California wines. 

Around the corner on Shattuck Avenue, Alice Waters opened a restaurant that began changing how America eats. Her Chez Panisse demonstrated the delicious meals that could be prepared from fresh, seasonal, local farm products. A growing circle of cooks nationwide embraced her simple principles as “California Cuisine.” 

At about the same time, Berkeley retail innovators like Moe’s Books and Rasputin Records gave the East Bay new ways to shop for familiar cultural products—plus a broadened selection of the unfamiliar. And in a converted automotive workshop further down Telegraph, The Body Shop (now Body Time) began growing from a small, quirky vendor of healthful cosmetics into an international trademark. 

We now take these businesses, and expanded options, for granted. But without their pioneers’ originality, Berkeley (and the whole country) would be a blander place. 

By supporting their successors—today’s locally owned businesses that offer us something just a bit different—we can help nurture Berkeley’s trendsetting businesses of tomorrow. We can keep the revolution turning for ourselves, and for friends and family in places less likely to incubate the offbeat. 

What do we get by shopping at Berkeley’s locally owned businesses? 

• More flexibility, better service. Local owners tend to create a more intimate dialogue that co-creates community tastes. Just as importantly, when you need to request products or services that aren’t already available, there’s no substitute for being able to talk directly to a small business’ owner or longtime staffer. 

Suzan Steinberg’s Stonemountain and Daughter fabric store has served Berkeley and beyond since 1981. “One of the reasons we are still here,” she says, “is that we listen carefully to the community...the whole sewing community. We are now a national and even international destination. Because there are so few unusual, independent, unique fabric stores left, we are now one of the top 10 to 20 fabric stores nationwide.” 

Further up Shattuck Avenue, at Games of Berkeley, Janet Winter says her specialty store’s advantage is that “we offer product knowledge, wide variety, and the knowledge that you’re supporting a local business.” She continues, “Most small businesses are family businesses, too, so you’re supporting not just one person but a whole family.” 

• Less stress on the planet. Locally owned businesses tend to be small businesses, which can readily fit into existing storefronts and buildings. Keeping old buildings in use, and keeping historic commercial districts thriving, fights sprawl. (“Adaptive reuse” may be the ultimate recycling project.) 

For more than 30 years, Berkeley’s Subway Guitars has been building and rebuilding unusual instruments for famous rock stars and anonymous local pickers. “We’re trying to reuse older instruments, which are probably better made,” says owner Fatdog, “and to manufacture instruments that are price-competitive with imports. We have a collaborative industry that creates these instruments, and that helps provide employment for a lot of musicians.” 

Locally owned businesses also tend to purchase more of their goods nearby than nonlocal businesses do. So, when customers shop locally, it translates into less long-distance transportation, less pollution, and a smaller carbon footprint. 

Amy Thomas, who owns the local Pegasus and Pendragon bookstores, adds: “By shopping in the neighborhood, not driving to the mall—and not buying on the Internet and having [delivery services] involved—people walk more. It’s good for you!” 

• A more creative, more compassionate community. Smaller businesses donate, on average, 250 percent more support to nonprofit organizations than do large businesses. Berkeley businesses are primarily small with some 85 percent which employ fewer than five people. And, all of Berkeley is enriched by our unusually high concentration of arts and other non-profit organizations which have made Berkeley a regional destination and deepened our sense of place. 

From social services to disability rights, Berkeley’s nonprofits have made us a regional and national leader in compassionate and innovative problem-solving. 

• A more stable city. Local businesses have local owners, who are invested in Berkeley’s future. They’re more likely to stay put, and less likely to leave empty storefronts on what should be thriving streets.  

• A stronger local economy and tax base. Locally owned businesses are especially likely to recirculate your purchases into payments to local and nearby suppliers. Economists call this a “multiplier effect,” because it steers more jobs and sales-tax revenue into our own community. And several recent studies have found local businesses’ multiplier benefits to be up to four times those of nonlocal businesses: 

A “retail diversity study” of San Francisco and three Peninsula cities found that purchasing from locally owned stores created about 70 percent more local jobs, and 67 percent more overall local income, per dollar spent. In all, the authors concluded that by shifting 10 percent of purchases to local businesses, consumers would add nearly 1,300 new jobs and $200 million in economic activity to the cities studied. ( 

In Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood, researchers found that locally owned businesses recirculated 58 percent more of consumers’ spending into the Chicago economy than did nonlocal businesses. Per retail square foot, the local businesses’ local multiplier effect was more than 70 percent higher. ( 

• Stronger local identity. In an increasingly homogenized world, how does Berkeley maintain an edge in attracting innovative, good employers and world-class scholars? We benefit by nurturing one-of-a-kind businesses, a distinctive character, and a strong sense of self. How Berkeley can YOU be? 


Deborah Badhia is executive director of the Downtown Berkeley Association. 


Need help finding local sources for what you want? Check these Berkeley neighborhoods’ online business directories: 



EDITOR’S NOTE: If you’re looking for locally owned businesses to patronize, besides trying the websites listed above you can also find some (though not all) local businesses through their advertising in the Berkeley Daily Planet and on our website, We thank them for supporting our local, family-owned business with their advertising dollars.