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The Money Where Our Mouth Is 

Chain stores are boring, shopping online is lonely—and more reasons to shop local

click to enlarge SARA SANGER

Shopping locally for me started out as a matter of aesthetics. Unlike other teenagers, I hated the mall and spent my time instead in downtown Santa Rosa, where local businesses thrived at the time on Fourth Street. The big unattractive brick plaza that swallowed 12 square blocks of Santa Rosa and cut the city in half wasn't even tempting. Shopping on Fourth Street, in stores that had real character, was the obvious choice.

Then, the choice to shop local became a matter of dignity. When I was 16, I got a job at one of those chain stores in the mall, and saw firsthand just how little respect corporate headquarters had for the customer. We were forced to upsell membership programs that couldn't possibly benefit customers unless they spent $200 a month. We were required to suggest mediocre products from companies that paid for premium placement instead of products that were better. We were made to destroy thousands of dollars of perfectly fine, sellable merchandise instead of marking it down. All this while claiming that the customer was the top priority.

You don't have to be sharp to see this from a customer's perspective in the retail world. Think of the superstore that asks for your club card, then your phone number, then for you to sign up for a rewards program that's really just a front to track your purchases. You're so distracted by all this while checking out that you don't get a chance to say "no bag" and meanwhile they've put your five items into five separate plastic bags. Then the checker looks at your receipt and completely mispronounces your last name.

December used to be fun. Holiday shopping used to mean running into friends and acquaintances in our vibrant downtowns, and supporting local merchants who showed their appreciation with one-on-one customer service; knowing our preferences and needs firsthand; occasionally saying "no charge" to regular customers; giving our kids their first job; sponsoring community events; going the extra mile to find what we need.

Then the chains came, and our local governments were strangely eager to let them in. Corporate chain stores were given tax breaks, waived permit fees, given free road improvements for traffic mitigation and other subsidies, all paid for by you and me. Elected officials fawned over these alleged "economic generators," conveniently forgetting the other, more destructive costs.

And then the American downtown died.

The past 15 years have brought us another problem altogether, with online giants like Amazon failing to provide local tax revenue and, until earlier this year, spending millions on lobbying to avoid paying state sales taxes. At times, even our daily newspaper confuses "shopping locally" with "shopping at chain stores," as long as the shopping is geographically located in the area. But even though brick-and-mortar chains can employ residents and pay regional sales taxes, none of the company's net profits stay in our community. Zero.

There's more to it than just aesthetics and dignity, too. Walmart and Target are notorious for low wages and difficult hours, and Amazon's warehouse working conditions have been investigated to be slightly above that of China's sweatshops. As Leilani Clark's news story this week explores, shopping locally is also a matter of smart economics, as profits get reinvested in the local economy.

Here's the good news for us in the North Bay: we still have a chance. We still have strong local stores with tremendous service that provide superior alternatives to the drab experience of shopping online and at faceless behemoths with byzantine parking lots and blank stares from underpaid, mistreated employees. We're also lucky not to live in the rural Midwest, where Walmart has decimated downtowns.

In fact, here in print, and online at bohemian.com throughout the month of December, are reminders to our readers about the benefits of shopping locally, drawing on personal experience with the expertise and knowledge of local stores and services. These are the places that we love, the personal institutions that come immediately to mind when someone says "Name a local business you couldn't live without."

There's a misconception spread by our local Republicans-in-disguise that being progressive-minded somehow means being "anti-business." That's absurd. Here are some of the good local businesses—and there are many, many more—that've taken care of us over the years. We've got no problem reciprocating the love. Gabe Meline



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My husband is a carpenter, my dad is an electrician and I am neither of these things—but I end up tagging along to home improvement stores on many a Saturday. At a certain big, boxy orange-and-gray hardware behemoth, I trail beside them through dark aisles of bolts and switches as they mutter under their breath about disorganization, a lack of customer service and the deterioration of the American store. My husband usually peppers his rants with words that I won't repeat right now, because it's almost Christmas. Friedman's Home Improvement is different—last week, before the storm, they gave away sandbags for free. But primarily, for me, because of lawn chairs. If you've ever been there, you know—there's a warehouse-sized area full of lawn chairs. There are also sofas, deck lounges and porch swings with cushions so deep they should be offshore drilling sites. You can read—for hours sometimes!—settled back into one of those babies, just rocking back-and-forth, sweetly oblivious to spark plugs and copper tubing. And the awesome staff won't kick you out, even while other potential buyers are browsing. Also, I hear their organization and products and customer service are really great. 4055 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa (707.584.7811), and 1360 Broadway, Sonoma (707.939.8811).—Rachel Dovey


I am as artistically inclined as an Arizona pack mule, but when I get the urge to make something with paint, paper, stencils, foil, glue, X-acto knives, foamcore board, canvas, aerosol, double-sided tape or patterned paper, I am always grateful for the existence of Rileystreet Art Supply. Not only do they have everything I could possibly need, I also usually walk in envisioning one project and I leave with the materials for three, thusly inspired. One time I was making a series of custom album covers and, not knowing much about paint, picked out the most professional-looking paint I could find on the shelves. But then I got to talking to a employee about what I was doing, and admitted I wasn't sure what kind of paint I needed, and she led me to some that was half the cost of the stuff I had in my hands. She actually downsold me, because she knew there was perfectly sufficient paint for the job that was cheaper, and didn't want me to waste my money. Talk about service! You gotta love that kind of stuff. 103 Maxwell Court, Santa Rosa, 707.526.2416; 1138 Fourth St., San Rafael, 415.457.2787.—Gabe Meline


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I must have walked past Eraldi's Shoes & Menswear dozens of times before I even noticed that it was there, sandwiched between the tasting rooms and touristy boutiques of Sonoma Plaza. What's this, an old-fashioned haberdasher, a holdover from the big-box homogenization of the retail sector that swept third-generation, family-run businesses such as this from Main Street in the latter part of the 20th century? Well, yes. My next thought was, hey, I could use another pair of Levi's. Founded in 1922, Eraldi's moved across the Plaza to its current location in 1959. And still looks it. The last thing I expected co-owner Dan Eraldi to say is "You've got to change your product mix all the time." Despite the time-capsule aesthetic, Eraldi keeps up with trends. He stocks newer brands like Kuhl, for instance; the 1950s-style Pendleton shirts—those are the hot, newly reissued retro patterns. If they don't carry it, "We can order it for you, it's not a problem," Dan Eraldi calls out across the floor to a customer. OK, it's all well and good to patronize a locally owned shop that gives back to the community, etc., but isn't there a surcharge for that? Not really. My Levi's—my size and preferred cut were in stock—were pretty reasonable. It helps that they own the building, and that Dan's father, Don, pitches in on the floor—although at 86, he's cut his hours back to five days a week. 475 First St. W., Sonoma. 707.996.2013.—James Knight


Clifford is not a big red dog. No, the proclaimed viceroy of Loud and Clear Audio Video is a long black dog, and he has always been more than helpful when I am in need of musical instruments or accessories. I knew nothing of ukuleles but knew I needed an upgrade. I had learned four chords on my dolphin-bridged, blue painted toy-like instrument, and my fat fingers were bending the strings so much it sounded perpetually out of tune. Cliff and his staff let me play all the ukes in the store, even the $2,500 rhinestoned Tiki-Goddes four-stringer once owned by Bette Midler. He taught me the tuning and differences between soprano, baritone and tenor ukuleles, and didn't complain when I sat for an hour struggling through the same chords on several instruments. I still play my new uke at least once a week, and have since learned more than four chords. It sounds better, plays better and feels like "the one," like Wayne Campbell's Excalibur (the white Fender Stratocaster with triple single coil pickups and a whammy bar, pre-CBS Fender corporate buyout). 7886 Old Redwood Hwy., Cotati 707.665.5650.—Nick Grizzle


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It was a necklace emergency! I'd never had one before, but on the day of my big concert at the Napa Valley Opera House I realized that the only bling I owned was in the wrong color. After calling around in the hope of borrowing something, a friend recommended Betty's Girl Boutique. I rushed into a shop filled with vintage dresses, hatboxes, dressmakers dummies and a sewing machine. Was I in the wrong place? When I blurted my need to owner Kim Northrop, explaining that I had only 45 minutes before show time, she grabbed a collection of rhinestone jewelry and sat chatting me off the ledge as I looked through the box. When I found the right color and sparkle, the necklace was too small. If I'd been at a chain store, the clerk would have stood there blinking or shrugging vaguely in a substitute apology. But not Kim. She grabbed her jewelry pliers, cannibalized a bit from elsewhere and—voilà!—the necklace fit. And so did the price. I made it to the performance on time with a beautiful necklace, grateful for the creative problem-solving abilities of a local merchant. 1144 Main St., Napa. 707.254.7560.—Juliane Porier


About to have my first baby, I was daunted by the impending influx of capital-S Stuff. My husband and I live in a tiny house in west Sebastopol with only one bedroom, and I couldn't figure out where the co-sleeper, the high-chair, the changing table and all the doll-sized garments were actually going to go. What's more, I was beset by Left Coast guilt over the thought of spending so many dollars (and asking my friends and family to spend just as many) at low-wage-paying chains like Target. After much Googling, I found Sweet Pea Children's Boutique in Cotati. It was locally owned and, as a seller of used goods, it was cheap. And it was crammed with ovary-twistingly adorable wares of the shoe and sweater and crib variety—things that I didn't look at and think, "I might need it, but I do I really need to cram it in my house?" After spending 10 minutes in a haze of tiny, polka dot smocks and swings covered in smiling frogs, I decided to register there which, I soon found out, meant writing down all the things I wanted on a blank sheet of printer paper. I had to be as specific as possible—listing not just the "green shoes" but the "three-month-old green shoes with peas on the toes, $10." When I look at the jumper covered in red flowers, the brown dress, the co-sleeper in my house, I can immediately tell, by quality alone, that they came from Sweet Pea. 15 Charles St., Cotati, 707.794.1215.—Rachel Dovey


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Most of the board games sold in America these days are purchased at chain stores, which are known for having stacks upon stacks of stuff. But just try to ask one of those Stuff-Iz-Us employees if Pizza Theory is as much fun to play as it sounds. If they even have Pizza Theory—a cool game of logic and cheesy toppings—the odds aren't good that anyone there has actually sat down and played it. At Gamescape North, in San Rafael, pretty much all they sell is games, from the good old-fashioned board games we grew up with (Monopoly! Scrabble!) to role-playing paraphernalia for Dungeons & Dragons and Magic. And the folks behind the counter can tell you, from personal experience, what they like best about the shape-matching phenomenon Cirplexed or the artsy new card game Murder of Crows. The same is true of Outer Planes, in Santa Rosa (519 Mendocino Ave.), which adds a huge selection of comic books—mainstream, rare and underground—to its selection of games and role-playing accoutrements. Both stores feature demonstrations and host group tournaments—something you're not going to see at Stuff-Iz-Us. 1225 Fourth St., San Rafael.—David Templeton


How did it all begin? Was it the sheep soap dispenser—the first sheep soap dispenser? That wasn't the start of all things sheep to be gifted among my family. No, no. Maybe it was the quail soap dispenser, purchased years ago at an arts and crafts outlet in Duncans Mills. I can guess at how it continued, in any case: a surreptitious peek at the underside of some already-gifted dispenser or other, signed, "North Eagle." Aha. Gift idea. I wonder if they have anything in. . . cats. Once best known as the animal-soap-dispenser people, Valley of the Moon Pottery, aka North Eagle (long story), has been in business in Sonoma County for 30 years. Owners Wayne Reynolds and Caryn Fried still make their signature collection of critters—pelicans, cats, sheep, hippos and frogs; turtles, doves, quail and, yes, owls—but now only sell direct from their rural gallery. I like them because their designs, from coffee mugs, carafes and other items with everyday uses to statuettes and plates meant only for display, even when whimsical, have a certain sense of dignity. And if you plan your shopping trip ahead, it's a twofer: North Eagle is also a "living Christmas tree farm," so-called because trees are cut down to the bottom branches, which are then trained to regrow vertically into a future holiday tree. Speaking of little trees, they've got bonsai, too. And, yes, hot apple cider. 6191 Sonoma Hwy., Santa Rosa. 707.538.2554.—James Knight


I thought it was odd when my dad insisted I go to Martin & Harris Appliances some years back to buy a new fridge. My parents were never too big on supporting local mom-and-pops, finding the wholesale warehouse prices too good to pass up. But Martin & Harris not only delivers competitive prices, its staff is by far the most knowledgeable in Marin. I learned this myself when I finally made it in. Our older sales guy immediately reminded me of the mythic "old days," where everyone took pride in their work and treated each customer as a king or queen. He spent 20 minutes explaining more than I ever need to know about ice makers, and learning about my food storage habits. He recommended an Amana, which was delivered the same day and has chilled my household from beer to baby formula. It's no wonder they have such a devoted following, considering all they do is appliances, everything from selling to repair and spare parts. While other homeowner concerns might involve cringe-worthy customer-service nightmares, it feels good to know that Martin & Harris have this one major area taken care of. 2158 Fourth St., San Rafael, 415.454.2021.—David Sason


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"It's like being in a big record store in San Francisco," says Last Record Store vinyl slinger Josh Staples, behind the counter, "but without all the crowds of people looking for the same things." True to form, the place feels like just the right size: large enough to browse comfortably but small enough not to become overwhelmed. There's every genre and plenty of obscurities. I have walked out with sealed copies of Ravi Shankar, Isis and Paul Simon records, not to mention "The Contest." (How can one resist the recording of an international flatulence competition?) This makes the store dangerous, and prevents me from visiting as much as I'd like. But every time I need a certain recording on vinyl (read: I am an audio snob), the Last Record Store is the first place I look. Heading in last week with hopes of selling a bunch of CDs (the store is pretty much only buying vinyl at the moment, to my dismay), I left with a Prince record for just $4—and I didn't even have time to check out the substantial $1 record bin. 1899 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa, 707.525.1963.—Nicolas Grizzle


Hurray for hobbies and enthusiasms, which would seem to present the gift shopper with a slam-dunk. Harken, gift shopper, and beware the hobby: gift not the nerded-out nanobrewer nephew a brew-in-a-bag starter kit. Better to present the budding garagiste with three French hens before the embarrassment of a can of Cabernet concentrate. Those ensconced comfortably deep in the rabbit hole of homebrewing or winemaking know exactly what they want; they don't have it on account that it's darned pricey. But that's where you come in, dear, thoughtful gift-giver. So get a list or look for clues. Is she boiling hops in grandma's rusty old enamel canning pot? Somebody needs a $200 stainless steel brewing kettle. And if you should stumble on terms like wort chiller or self-adjusting refractometer, seek advice at your local fermentation supply. This is one sector that seems to rebuff the advance of internet retail. Case in point: after a decade of lugging around substandard rented grape destemmer machines, I decided to splurge on one. Well, splurge on a budget, and with a specific, quality-enhancing feature: lobed rubber rollers. Mmm, gentle crushing, but not easy to find. After scrolling through dozens of tiny pictures and woefully brief product descriptions, with one phone call I found that Napa Fermentations had exactly what I wanted, and at a crazy good price. Located in the Napa County Fairgrounds—with plenty of parking—the store is stocked with all manner of gadgets, and staffed with people who've been helping to make sugar plum dreams bubble into tasty beverages since 1983. 575 Third St., Napa. 707.255.6372.—James Knight


It's overwhelming, visiting that huge, toy-store conglomerate. Bearing down are endless rows of items from the latest movies, shows and other heavily promoted juggernauts that probably don't constitute the best influence on your young-uns. There are a few educational toys, but by the time you locate them, your little one is fully gaga over the all too common reinforcer of American military aggression or anorexic California-girl vapidity. Thankfully for parents, Five Little Monkeys on Grant Avenue in downtown Novato feels more like a cozy neighborhood bookstore than an imposing personification of corporate tween culture. The store carefully selects its toys, games and books to be environmentally sound, safe and educational. There's something charming about their wide selection of wooden train sets and the like, which hark back to a time when imagination trumped the hot new action figure or gadget. The icing on the cake is the personal service by staff, who provide free exquisite gift-wrap and will even spend a half hour with you to find that perfect gift for the kid who has it all. These days, it's rare to find a toy store that plays so nice with others. 852 Grant Ave., Novato. 415.898.4411.—David Sason

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