The students in the Entrepreneurship in the Arts class I teach at Wichita State University astounded me recently. What I thought was an obvious question, stumped them. We were talking about Watermark Books and I asked them why they thought it was important that Wichita have an independent locally-owned bookstore? Their answer … Crickets. The longer we sat in silence, the more I realized they really didn’t know the answer.
Maybe it isn’t reasonable of me to expect, but I imagined everyone knows buying from locally-owned businesses means more money stays in our community, more local jobs are created, and our city is a more fun place to live. I believe in this so much, that in 2012 I set a goal for myself to spend my money, as much as I could, at locally-owned businesses, even if it meant it cost a little more. As a business consultant, I was tired of seeing inventive, interesting businesses close because we weren’t supporting them with our dollars. Since you’ve met me, you probably know by now that when something bothers me, I feel compelled to try to do something about it.
At the time, “Flash Mobs” were a big deal. You know, groups of people that break into “spontaneous” dance numbers in public places. Cashing in on the craze, blogger and engineer Chris Smith organized the first ever “Cash Mob” in Buffalo, New York in August 2011, to help save his local hardware store. He borrowed the idea of flash mobs, but instead of dancing he asked people to go to predetermined businesses on a specific day and spend a little money. Through this action, he hoped to offer some financial relief to small, struggling local businesses and get the community together. Reading this story inspired me.
To find out if there was any interest in the idea, I asked my Facebook friends late in the evening on March 14, 2012, if I started something like Cash Mob in Wichita, would they come play with me? The response was an overwhelming, “Yes!” Impressed with this enthusiastic response, I started a Facebook Group at midnight; 36 hours later there were 1,500 members ready to go shopping. The first Cash Mob Wichita event happened only 10 days later, on Saturday, March 24. I organized it fast, so Wichita could join the 200 other cities around the world participating in the first ever International Cash Mob Day.
That Saturday, hundreds of local-business supporters mobbed the streets of Historic Delano to shop at five stores that were selected because they’d been open less than a year, sold products for men and women, gave back to the community in some way, and agreed to be mobbed. To make an impact on these businesses, shoppers were asked to make a minimum suggested purchase of $10 in at least one of the Mob locations. To make it more fun and create a community atmosphere, shoppers are also encouraged to meet at least one new person while they were out. Loving buttons as souvenirs even back then, I gave the stores that participated buttons to give away to people who bought something, to make it easier for Cash Mobsters to spot each other. The day was a big success. There was a lot of excitement around the initiative, and the story was covered by local television stations, the Eagle, and the Wichita Business Journal. I was even in a story about International Cash Mob Day in the Huffington Post!
For the next couple of years I went on to organize Cash Mobs in different parts of town, like Indian Hills at 13th Street and Amidon, Nomar at 21st and Broadway, Normandie Shopping Center at Central and Woodlawn, the shopping center at 1900 East 21st Street, and the Hillside and Douglas/Clifton Square area. I chose these neighborhoods, hoping to expose people to stores and get them to venture into neighborhoods they may not have explored before. There are so many unique businesses all over town, that are so much better than the cookie-cutter corporate offerings, I don’t understand why people would go anywhere else. Sure, Panera has good pastries, but have you tried Juarez Bakery? No comparison - in taste and impact to our community. There are so many other reasons to support locals. Here are the ones that may not be as obvious, but are most important to me:
Supporting our fellow Wichitans, helping keep their businesses open by spending money with them, is only part of how this builds community. It’s also about coming together. We gather for events at places like Lucinda’s Old Town, Tanya’s Soup Kitchen, and Central Standard Brewing, and we interact with each other. We meet new people, get to know each other, and share experiences. This unifies and strengthens who we are.
Locals Get Us
Locals who open businesses understand what we’re looking for. They’ve found a need in the community that isn’t being met and are taking a risk to give us what we need. They understand our brand of disco because they’re part of our community.
Our love of hummus didn’t come from a national chain. It came from people who traveled here from Lebanon, to start a new life, sharing their homeland family recipes with us. I blame Antoine Toubia with his original Lebanese restaurant, Olive Tree. His legacy is carried on by his heirs at Two Olives. Now nearly every restaurant in Wichita carries it.
Locals give us more, not just in types of businesses and flavors, but also in the choices we get. What I didn’t mention to my students in our conversation about supporting locally-owned businesses, is that having an independent bookstore goes beyond economic value. Because we have one of the best independent bookstores in the United States, we’re exposed to additional authors and viewpoints, outside what major retailers are pushing.
The kind of service you get a mom-and-pop owned business is different than you get at a chain store. Because there aren’t a lot of employees coming and going all the time, you get to know the people you do business with. They become part of your life, as you share the high points and low with them. We build relationships with these people, and our community becomes closer and stronger.
Anyone who has lived in Wichita and has been to the Old Mill Tasty Shop downtown very often knows Gail, a waitress who has been there as long as I can remember. She’s never met a stranger, hasn’t ever had a bad day even when the line is out the door, and has a gift for making everyone feel as warm and cozy as the delicious, homey food. She has a talent for remembering people and celebrates likes she’s part of the family when I bring out of town guests to this hometown favorite.
Supporting locally-owned businesses are good for women too. According to the Department of Labor, 36 percent of small businesses are owned by women. In my consulting practice, I’ve helped lots of women start their own businesses, often because these Boss Ladies wanted to be in charge of their own destiny. One of the best ways to be sure you’re getting wage equity is to pay yourself! Seeing thriving women-owned businesses gives other women role-models, inspiring them to take a chance on themselves.
It’s easy to get people excited about something the first time it is offered, but not as easy to keep actions, like Cash Mob, going. After a couple of years, it ran its course, interest waned, and it was time for me to move on to new projects. (As I’ve written this, I’ve realized it was just a little over a year after I stopped doing Cash Mob that I started the Finishing School for Modern Women. Another of my crazy ideas.) I ended the project hoping that through this shop-local action, people understood the important and would do more to support these businesses. To have nice things we have to not just talk about them, or like their social media posts – we have to actually give them money. Support them in the way that really counts.
So, my challenge for you is to strongly support your community with your dollars. When you’re deciding where to go, think about alternatives that are owned by someone who could be your neighbor, not anonymous stockholders. Try traveling out of your norm and go on an adventure to a new store or neighborhood. Rather than buying gifts through Amazon, or some other online merchant that doesn’t care about our city, get out in the community and buy from real live people. People who you keep employed. You never know, you just may find a new friend along with your new treasure.
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