There's been a lot of negative talk lately about a particular chain store that's so big it's blamed for everything from our national trade deficit to the growing ranks of the medically uninsured. Some of that talk was in the Independent a few weeks back (see "What's wrong with Wal-Mart," Nov. 9--oops, I've given it away). Still, while some of us complain about "the high cost of low price"--from the title of the Wal-Mart documentary by John Greenwald--a lot of others only hear "low price."
Well, sometimes the prices at the chain stores are lower, says John Hodges, who owns the two Tookie's Toys shops in Raleigh (Cameron Village and Falls Village) with his wife, Katherine. (She's Tookie, thanks to her nephews when they were little.) But often they're not, or they're pennies lower, and they're never significantly less when you take the good service into account.
Good service? As we're talking about what that means, a customer behind us asks Tookie about a board game, called Blockus, that's for ages 5 and up? Yes, Tookie says, 5-year-olds can follow the instructions, but it's the 6- and 7-year-olds who understand the strategies and really get into the game.
This "hands-on, consultative approach" to selling is what sets Tookie's apart from, oh, let's say, Target. The Hodgeses know their products, know which ones are good for which kids, and more than that, they try to supply products that are good for kids--in other words, that are fun and teach something too.
Their employees, almost all part-time moms and students, are also well-trained in the products, and all of them work year-round--nobody's added just for the holidays. "Our sales staff have to be able to answer the same questions we can," Hodges says. "Otherwise, we'd just be Target that wraps."
I could go on about Tookie's, but--OK, one more thing. At Wal-Mart, the toys that teach don't move as well as the ones that blast and destroy. That's because, while your anti-tank airship is pretty much self-explanatory, Music Blocks (Neurosmith) are not. They're small cubes that play a series of notes when they're plugged into a board. Put them together in a different order, you get a different song. Lesson for your toddler: how to write a song.
But, sad story for Neurosmith: When they tried to sell Music Blocks in the big chain stores, they went belly up, because chain-store employees weren't taught how to use the product, so customers didn't know either. Fortunately, another company that sells to independent toy stores bought out Neurosmith's musical product line and now has it thriving.
So that's one reason to buy at Tookie's: You know what you're getting, which means you're a lot less likely to waste your money on a "bargain" that turns out not to be. Another reason is, Tookie's will store your purchases in the back if you want, eliminating the chance that prying eyes will find them in your closet. And, of course, free gift-wrap.
But here's the big reason: Tookie's is locally owned. So your money--more of it, anyway--stays here. Tookie's pays a local accountant, a local lawyer, a local ad firm. And, if it makes a profit, which fortunately it does, the Hodgeses spend it in Garner, where they live, and in Raleigh. And they pay taxes in Wake County, not the Cayman Islands.
That message--that patronizing your locally owned business is good for your community--is why Tookie's joined a new organization, the Raleigh Independent Business Alliance (RIBA), Hodges says.
"We have a good customer base. But we know there are other people out there who don't recognize the benefit of shopping with independent businesses. So I hope--through RIBA--we can get that message out to more and more people." Mall the same? There's another, more subjective reason to root for--and patronize--the locally owned business over the chain store. And for that we go to Quail Ridge Books & Music on Wade Avenue, in the Ridgewood shopping center, where owner Nancy Olson is one of RIBA's founding members and biggest boosters.
Olson's got an angel tree going. Her customers buy a book and give it to a needy child. Earlier in the day, one customer brought in a $600 check from his business for the nonprofit Olson started, called Books for Kids. (Elizabeth Edwards, wife of the former senator and vice presidential candidate, is a board member.) Olson estimates they've given out 15,000-20,000 books that way since it started.
Last week, the store hosted a fundraiser for Interact, which helps domestic violence victims. It helped with another one, at Meredith College, for the Wake County Literacy Council, bringing in ABC's Cokie Roberts as guest speaker.
This is good. This is charity that begins at home. Local business owners are more likely to be the leaders of local nonprofits, not merely--as in the case of chain-store managers--sometime contributors. (Did I mention that John Hodges is on the board of Playspace, the local children's museum in Raleigh?)
But I'm not talking about that. Or only that. I'm talking about something Olson said almost in passing, after she'd talked about her wonderful sales staff (they are), and her battles with the chains (she's won her share), and her new low-price approach (she will not be undersold--join the QRB Readers Club for $15 and get 10 percent off every book, 20 percent during twice-a-year sales weeks, and 30 percent off all hardcover best-sellers. And right now, she's got four mega-sellers, including Doris Kearns Goodwin's new book on Lincoln, priced below all the chains and Amazon.com's--guaranteed).
What Olson said was, "And we haven't even touched on having a more interesting city."
That's right. Every city's got a Barnes and Noble, or two or three, and they're fine. But what makes Raleigh interesting--different--is Nancy Olson, book-lover, civic activist and liberal Democrat, who runs her store her way, with books on anarchists as well as Jesse Helms' new tell-little on hand. And who is tickled that--as we're talking--one of her managers is helping a customer pick out the best book this Christmas for each member of her "very large family."
Olson holds town meetings in her store on subjects like the USA PATRIOT Act--which, by the way, drew an overflow crowd and is the only time I've ever met U.S. Attorney Frank Whitney, a Republican. "Everybody knows I'm a liberal Democrat. But I try very hard to be even-handed," Olson says.
And every chance she gets, she talks to local groups about buying locally, trying to "sensitize" them--"I don't like to say 'educate,' but with a little consciousness, we could be bringing thousands of dollars, millions of dollars, back into the community."
Studies show, she says--and RIBA points out--that locally owned businesses return three times the percentage of their profits to the community that chain-run businesses do. "If you buy a book here, the profits stay in Raleigh," she says. "When you buy at Amazon, the amount of money that stays here is"--she makes a circle with her fingers--"zero." Keep Raleigh blank One of Olson's models for RIBA is a group in Austin, Texas, that formed when it looked like Austin was going to subsidize a new Barnes and Noble at a location near a long-established independent bookstore and several indie music places. The slogan they adopted, "Keep Austin Weird," caught on down there and is used by everyone from the head shops to the Chamber of Commerce.
When she told me that, I asked her to fill in this blank: "Keep Raleigh ______."
Well, she said, funny I'd ask that, because it's the question the RIBA members are asking themselves, but haven't--thus far--answered. What's Raleigh's identity, such that losing it to a chain-store world would be widely recognized as a calamity?
Keep Raleigh--what? Maybe you know.
But the real point is, keep Raleigh prosperous and diverse and interesting by supporting its good locally owned businesses. At the holidays. Including Christmas.
RIBA has just hired its first executive director, Linda Watson, an entrepreneur and Web site designer who's also an accomplished community activist. She's recruiting new members, working on a membership directory, and planning Raleigh's first "Independents Week" ("Raleigh Unchained") as well as other promotions. She can be reached at 782-9004.