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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 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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