The Live Local column began around Thanksgiving in 2009, in a completely different world, by a very different person. The impetus was to see if I could fulfill a year-long challenge to not shop at chain stores or online, or eat at chain restaurants. In other words, I wanted to see if I could spend an entire year investing my money exclusively in this community supporting small, locally owned businesses.
I thought it would be a chronicle of visiting farmers’ markets, answering questions about where to buy items everyone assumed were big-box store exclusives, like mattresses (Harrell’s Department Store), sheets and towels (Tomlinsons), or even smaller, un-thought-of stuff, like packaging tape (Stevens Hardware). I did cover those topics, but along the way, I discovered so much more about how our fragile ecosystem of a local economy fits together. More so, its survival is actually in our hands—not some shadowy puppet master’s far away.
But that power scares most people. We would rather not know or take responsibility for it.
Just for a little context, allow me to travel back to 2009 and share what led to Live Local’s beginnings…
Our small, family-owned, independent book store was still in the same location it had rented for 26 years, across from Front Street Brewery. Walmart was trying to take out the few remaining brick-and-mortar businesses, and the evil online empire owned by Jeff Bezos (yes, Amazon) was on a high-speed trajectory to shut down every independent book store in America. Manufacturing was getting off-shored and job loss was staggering. Main Streets across America got a lot of attention at election time, but otherwise were ignored as something “quaint” like novelty wallpaper. The economy was in a tailspin. Furloughs of government employees began because there was no money to pay them and keep essential services open (yes, I consider the library an essential service). The massive bank bailout, the TARP program, was implemented in 2010 to save the banks that were “too big to fail.”
In the midst of those ashes, the 99% Occupy Movement arose to draw attention to the rest of the country not in the 1% wealth bracket. The movement highlighted an insane debt-cycle racket that controls everyone else’s life through banks.
Meanwhile, the building the bookstore occupied for 26 years was condemned, due to neglect by our former landlord. In the midst of trying to move 150,000 books and find a new location, my father began a multi-month hospital odyssey.
The year 2010 stands out as the worst, most educational and most beautiful year of my life. That Jock didn’t leave me is amazing. The man had shoulder-high stacks of boxes of books in his house for 11 months. There was a path to our bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. He jacked up floor joists to keep the house from collapsing. I was a mess of stress, anger, grief and fear, lashing out in terrible, angry ways. Surrounding it all was the purchase of a new space for the bookstore, a massive construction project to open to the public, and a handicapped bathroom renovation at my parents’ house. Oh, and I was virtually living at the hospital—with no income coming in at all.
That year was my darkest hour in an ongoing nightmare. Yet, at every turn, someone surprised me with their generosity and kindness. The day we moved the bookstore’s inventory into storage was one of the most moving and powerful days of my life. I still cry when I talk about it, and probably will until my dying day. Hundreds of people showed up to move us to safety. Ten months later, when we began unpacking in the new space, people showed up again and again, to help get boxes out of storage and books onto shelves.
If that wasn’t a turning point in my life, nothing will be. It made me have to slowly rethink everything I thought I knew about the world and my place in it. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last nine years. Because, initially, I set out with this column to change my world, with a goal to get people to stop shopping at Walmart.
While I explored these experiences and connections, the world shifted drastically. Our film industry in North Carolina, for example, saw huge swings—from episodic television series and feature films spending money like an intoxicated heiress at a casino, to almost nothing. That happened in a calculated move courtesy of our NC General Assembly. With the death of the film incentive, they effectively exiled over 4,000 professional-level jobs out of our state.
Along the way they also passed the “bathroom bill” (HB 2), and have repeatedly assaulted voters’ rights and civil liberties.
Then the GenX/Chemours story made headlines with the revelation that the water we drink, bathe in, brush our teeth with, and give to our children and animals, is poisoned. Though the public outcry was loud, by and large, very little has been done to addresses this problem.
Then the New Hanover County Commissioners declared war on their constituency. The opening salvo actually was pretty standard and fairly quiet: Project Grace came as a plan to move the museum and rebuild the main branch of the New Hanover County Library, complete with high-end apartments atop it. (This is a highly condensed version; please, read our previous coverage for a more in-depth look.) On its face, it was just another example of a “done deal” with the powers-that-be destroying something good that served the public for no real visible public benefit. In spite of pushback, it seemed like business as usual: they didn’t care about our opinions and were going to do what they wanted.
Oh, dear gods! What a canary in the proverbial coal mine.
Next, came our county-owned hospital system possibly put up for sale and becoming private—for no discernible reason that would actually benefit the public. And just last month WAVE Transit—our public bus system—came under fire. Three of the county commissioners have voted against the other two to eliminate county funding for the service.
Nationally, it has been crazier, moving from the inauguration of Barak Obama in 2009 to the impeachment hearing of Donald Trump in 2019. That’s part of why the Live Local column has changed: The words “American economy,” “local,” and “small business” have taken different meanings. What was a well-meaning grassroots effort to refocus and bring some balance back to the economy has been taken to the extreme in rhetoric of isolationists and nationalists. That journey has been an odd one to endure.
So I began Live Local with an extreme vision, and in the process have seen a pendulum swing that is startling. Again, after an outward surprise, I have to go inside and ask questions to prepare for the answers that sometimes prove to be a longtime coming—and difficult to process.
I know I continue to do business with and support my neighbors. I like shopping and eating with people who recognize me by name when I walk in the door. These intangible connections are part of what makes life worthwhile for me—and they are more valuable than anything I can put a dollar figure upon.
The face of community has changed drastically in the last decade. According to the US Census Bureau, our population was a little more than 106,00 in 2010. By 2018 it was more than 122,600. Face it, we live on a delicate peninsula and there is a finite point for the density and impact our area can absorb. But that’s also a vast change in the daily life of our area. There are conversations about what our future can and will look like that are very different from what they would have been 10 years ago.
One thing we need to talk about is the value of our Historic District. We have colonial-era architecture—not a lot of it, but some—and more than many cities in the American South. That is a valuable economic asset, but if we don’t champion it, as more people move here with no connection to it, we will lose it in favor of strip malls and wider streets.
It is hard to move somewhere new and learn the area. I am guilty of losing patience with the storm of newly relocated yankee retirees bemoaning all the problems with living in the South and with Southerners in general. It is hard to remember they are homesick and have just gone through a profound life change: leaving all their friends, family and familiarity. In addition to our much-lauded Southern hospitality, we encourage them to become fully integrated parts of our community and help them learn about living here.
It is hard. That might be one of the biggest personal challenges I face. But if we are going to survive as a community that can have a conversation about our future, we must welcome and educate our newest members.
Looking back at the last decade of Live Local, I realize I set out to change the world, and in truth it is the ongoing lessons from the village around me that have changed me. So, thank you. I am such a flawed and hopeful person. Thank you, for not giving up on me. I promise I will continue to try to be worthy of all the lessons so I can bring something to the conversation, and together we can try to move forward.