An Artist's Guide to Shopping Local

 [Above and Below Photos: my shop in a converted storage unit in Downtown Huntsville, AL.]

When I was still running my art business out of my living room a few years back, there were misty afternoons when I would begin to listlessly daydream, sitting on my balcony waiting for the universe to speak to me, calling up friends to see who was free, and then once I managed to find a buddy with spare time, the afternoon would proceed in more or less the same manner.  We would make our first stop at The Kaffeeklatsch, a shop that has been in business for over 40 years where I would buy some tea or coffee or a handmade mug for my collection.  I can think of nothing more reassuring than being greeted by owners Grant and Kathy Heath, who always bothered to remember my name and which teas I enjoyed and still do now that I run my shop across the street from theirs (what a treat to be greeted by the toast-like aroma of beans roasting as I cross the street, eager to liven up a sleepy afternoon at the studio with a $2 cup of their coffee of the day).  Next, a walk around our generally quiet historic Courthouse Square (a staple of any real Southern town), maybe even some gelato at Sam and Greg's Pizzeria and Gelateria.

Last but not least, we would drive or walk to Five Points, to a place called The Switch House (which has since closed in Huntsville and re-emerged as the 3-Ring Traveling Apothecary in Detroit), a tiny shop in an actual former switch house beside the railroad tracks, packed with the owner's handmade candles and bath products, as well as all manner of handmade local goods-- anything from bread to upcycled sweaters to hand-sewn notebooks to soaps to hand-dyed scarves and wool roving balls.  This last place always held a certain strange magic to me. . . among the old bricks and the unusually beautiful fragrance from owner Monique Given's candles and the odds and ends and goodies and random treasures, I could always expect my spirits to stir again, my dulled senses to come back to life.  I would usually wind up with a candle and a loaf of Huntsville's very own Fred Bread, then my traveling buddy for the day and I would return to my living room for a pot of tea and some grilled cheese sandwiches and an evening of endless conversation.  I am happy to sell 3-Ring candles at my own shop now, and simply opening them and taking a whiff sometimes brings back a flood of evocative thoughts and memories.

Why do I wax nostalgic over this, you ask?  Because, as Kandinsky once said, an artist must train not only his eye but his soul, and there are days when I train my soul by reading or praying or meditating or walking in nature, and there are days when I train my soul by hosting tea parties, and there are days when only a bit of exploration of my town will do, and part of the allure of certain parts of my town is the way local businesses manage to become community hubs and places of inspiration that foster the exchange of goods and ideas alike.  There are days when I need to get back in touch with what makes my town interesting, my surroundings special, not just by chasing whispers from the past but by seeing life in the present, when I need new tea to fill my tins and new candles to thaw my frozen emotions and bread to fill my stomach and provide food for thought too.  When I need to go out and look at things that other people have made with their hands and hold them and hear the story behind them and have the honor of taking them home to savor and remember.  Call it romantic, call it finicky, call it whatever you like; I want more and I want that extra little caring personal touch in an age when too many things feel impersonal and negligent.  I do not want to grab things off a warehouse shelf and call it a day. . . I want to talk to people and learn something and share the connection of being human and feel that I bought something that has a bit of love behind it.

There have been countless other local businesses, some that I can continue to enjoy and some gone but not forgotten, that have cheered me on my afternoons of wandering. . . as well as a few small neighborhoods and parks and alleys and other places I can go when I need to escape bland suburbia, creeping sprawl, heavy traffic, and my occasional feelings of inner discord and disconnection.  Simply going to a farmer's market packed with fresh, delicious vegetables or a locally-owned, smaller grocery store can cheer me as no enormous, fluorescent-lit warehouse of a box store ever could.

Moreover, it is inspiring and life-affirming to see owners and workers who do not hate their jobs (as far too many people do), who genuinely want to help clients, who make beautiful, high-quality things, who care about beauty and poetry and community and neighbors, not simply dollars and clocking out at the end of the day and getting it all over with.  Seeing people who dare to live out their dreams and believe in seizing the day gives me hope and helps to motivate me.  I strive to be that sort of person myself and opened my own store in the hope that I could create a little bit of the magic for others that my favorite local businesses have created for me. . . I needed the right outlet to realize my innate potential each day and work toward refining my talents and sharing things of value with others.  It is very hard work sometimes, but it is the most worthwhile work I have ever done or ever care to do.

You have probably heard the "Shop Local" mantra, and you may have already heard about how following it puts more money into your local economy.  Perhaps you have noticed how many local businesses work hard to be eco-conscious or particularly ethical in some other way.  Maybe you have heard a few weak counter-arguments about higher prices (which are not necessarily true) or how not every place is capable of producing everything (which misses the point, I believe-- shopping local is about trying to support local ownership and thoughtful small business practices, not entirely denying oneself products from out-of-state or accepting sub-par goods).  At any rate, you have probably heard all the positive economic lectures and compelling condemnations of many big corporations too.  Maybe "shop local" has become a feel-good phrase for you. . . something you talk about, but find inconvenient or are rarely able to do or do as a kind of activism.  If you are already reading my blog, you probably do not need me to reiterate those arguments.  That said, if there is anything I would like to emphasize about why I enjoy shopping local, it is the way local business owners often go above and beyond in offering a pleasant experience to their clients, care about what they do, have found a niche for themselves that makes them happy to go to work each day, and strive to nurture the qualities and talents that make your town uniquely your own.  If that is not worth seeking out and celebrating, I do not know what is.

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