Frank and I spent a good portion of last Friday morning delivering the new 2009 Member Directories to our member businesses. This year, most of the deliveries have been accomplished by volunteers--an impressive achievement, given the stresses of a holiday season that, for most business owners (and consumers) is even more financially tenuous than usual. As we went around to our member businesses, though, we noticed that very few people actually had their directories on display. Some folks had a display case in a drawer, some of them had put it in a basement or stockroom, and some said "Well, I ran out of directories a while ago, so I figured I'd take it down." Now, this directory contains listings and advertisements for over 260 locally-owned Cambridge businesses--an undeniably powerful piece of advertising for one small booklet that can be slipped into a purse or glove compartment. So, I found myself asking, "why wouldn't our members, who pay good money every year to be part of Cambridge Local First, want to take advantage of this opportunity?" The answer, I think, comes out of the general malaise that's affected this country for the past eight years, a sort of fatalism that leads to a "someone else will take care of it" mentality. I don't have to put these directories out at my business. Someone else will do it. There's 260 of us, after all--surely someone has more time than I do. I'm working overtime just to pay the rent these days. I'll put them up next month. Besides, anyone who comes in here has already found my store, so why do I need to advertise it with this directory?
The ironic thing is, this is exactly the kind of ethos that's led to the current economic collapse. Both consumers and business owners have gotten into the habit of taking the path of least resistance, which almost always means the path of greatest self-interest. We've reached a point, though, where both the politics and the economics of self-interest have failed us. If we want to survive this current crisis, we need a rising tide that lifts all boats, and that tide is focus on the community. If 260 other business owners in your town were proudly and prominently displaying a brochure that advertises your business, you'd expect that to make a difference in your bottom line. But what if only 200 were doing it? 150? 100? 50? The point of diminishing returns comes rapidly when everyone expects someone else to pick up the slack, and the effects are seen much sooner and more devastatingly in a local economy, where no one is interested in bailing us out.
Displaying those directories goes beyond the advertising benefits, though...it also sends a silent message to consumers about what kind of place they're doing business in. If a consumer walks down the street browsing through a dozen independent shops, and in each one she sees the owners visibly supporting both their fellow business owners and the city where she lives, it raises her awareness that local business is more community-oriented than big business. Displaying visible symbols of commitment is a powerful tool for religions and political organizations, and it can be a powerful tool for local businesses too...you can boost the morale in your community at the same time you're boosting your profit margin.
The money that our members pay for membership each year is a small investment, and one that can either multiply in value or end up as good money thrown after bad, depending on the extent to which everyone is willing to work together. Both locally and globally, this is not the time to think small--it's time to step up and be part of something bigger. I think that can happen in Cambridge, and that's why I work here.
I hope that others in this city feel the same way. Let's start working on that united front today.