Last week some friends and I organized a cash mob in our tiny town. We got 40 people to swarm a local gift shop in the two-block downtown shopping district. It was fun: fun to set up, fun to execute, fun to hear about afterward. In the immediate aftermath, I got asked to do a radio program on independent bookstores because of my upcoming book. So when I sat down to organize my thoughts for the interview, here’s what I could unpack from the whole cash mob experience:
1) The way we live now is not the way I want to live.
My husband and I made a pact about six months ago: we would stay out of Wal-Mart as much as possible, buying there only what we absolutely couldn’t find from any independent retailers in our area.
Four days. We lasted four days, and then I needed a picture frame, and guess what? In the whole two blocks of downtown, nobody sold one except Wallyworld.
Is this how we want to live? I didn’t want to give $6 to a corporation in return for that frame; I wanted a neighbor to have it, so she could spend it at the diner and the diner owner could put it in her church offering plate, and the church could use it to stock the food pantry with day-old produce from Bob’s Pantry and Grocery, and Bob could buy his kid some books at our shop. But I sent it zipping out of state, out of reach. I would have paid $10 to a local shop to buy the same thing.
Remember when box stores were weird, not the norm? I want to live with my neighbors, trading books from my shop for haircuts, or getting my bicycle chain repaired. I want to put tomatoes in a basket at the front of the bookstore next to a set of scales and a note that says, “$1 per pound: Make your own change from the honor box.” That’s still possible in Big Stone, and I don’t want to lose that camaraderie. I’ll pay more to stay out of a box store and keep my neighborhood functioning as a cohesive unit. Happily.
Sure, some of us have to be more careful with money than others. But that “hidden cost” thing, that unexamined consequence of big box stores taking over downtown places, making someone back in another state rich and leaving a lot of former business owners poorer, that’s a real cost. And it makes us, the community members, poorer as well.
2) “Just plain ordinary people” are powerful—very powerful.
There was a lot of inquisitiveness as soon as the cash mob was over on how it had come to be organized, “who” had done it. The cash mob came from a group of friends getting together. We wanted to have some fun, and we were kicking around the idea of a flash mob. But that was a lot of work for one—pardon the expression—flash in the pan that didn’t do much good in the world. My friends and I are cynical altruists, the kind of people who do the right thing with sarcastic comments about how it won’t make any difference. But we keep doing the right thing. And when we googled flash mobs and saw a reference to cash mobs, well, we knew what to do.
This bothered some people, because it was just us, not an organization, not even people who were connected by blood or marriage to the store we chose, just “a bunch of girls.” And that bunch of girls made good stuff go, just because it was good stuff.
To get it going, Jessica and Elissa, the tech-savvy members of our gang, used Facebook to create a secret list, then the eight of us added everyone we knew who lived within about 20 miles of downtown. The list went up and down in size as people who’d been added decided to stay or not, and added their own friends. (Not many people left.)
That was it. An hour to get the mob list set up, a month of gathering names, and one day to swamp the store. It was lovely, and it was low investment in time and money. And it was just people. Not a chamber of commerce, not a government scheme, not a political wrangle: just eight friends, a Facebook page, and 200 people who signed each other onto the list. And about 40 who went shopping, and made a local store owner feel like a million bucks.
Governments—big or little—don’t help us; organizations, business centers, the big grinding wheels of expertise don’t help us. We help each other. And we are very good at it. People are powerful, more powerful than we care to admit, because we don’t like to be harnessed without good reason. But the cash mob, an entirely voluntary activity that asked people to spend money, had 40 people and 200 supporters and sent a store’s revenues sky-rocketing. No mess, no fuss, no voting.
3) Money is not that expensive.
I spent $17 in the gift shop we cash mobbed. Had I gone to Wal-Mart, I probably would have spent $12 for the same goods. But the owners of that gift shop are now one thousand percent behind us doing another cash mob for a different business, and so happy to know that people appreciate their contributions to our town, and want them to stay there. For my extra fiver, I got a day I will remember fondly in my senior years, full of laughs with friends, a feeling of empowerment. I got more than $5 extra can buy anyplace else, by investing it within my own heart.
Again, I understand that some people must be frugal: students, senior citizens on fixed pensions, the unemployed. But the rest of us, so artful about what we value and how much we’ll pay for it, can we see what our savings cost? How much are we giving up by holding out?
4) Being part of a community has both hidden costs and hidden values.
The day of the cash mob, Miss Bean, a shop owner across the street and one of Big Stone’s most beloved colorful local characters, appeared in the designated store first thing that morning, clutching a twenty-dollar bill. She asked the shop keeper, “Is this the day we’re supposed to spend ten bucks each in here?”
It kinda went uphill from there. By about two in the afternoon the owners knew something was up, but thought it might be the sun; that Saturday’s weather could not have been more pleasant. But by 3:30 they knew they’d been, as my friend Cyndi put it, “the victim of an uphold.” By the end of the day the place had done four times its normal trade—and every single shopper had asked the husband-and-wife cashiers, with a sly wink or tone, “Been busy today?”
Afterward, the shop owners told me, “It was exciting to do that much business in a single day, but what was special was seeing people we’d never seen before, or people who hadn’t shopped with us in a long time, coming through the door, looking around at what we had. And they talked to us. It wasn’t just the money; it was community. We started that downtown store so we could be a part of community; I’d always wanted to be that little downtown proprietor we all remember from childhood. I can truly tell you that we had a wonderful day.”
Thing is, the people participating had a wonderful day too. They posted back on the Facebook page about how much fun it was just to buy some trinkets from a local—and have a conversation with her.
Remember when downtown was the place to be on Saturday? Walk down the sidewalk nodding and smiling—and depending on the size of your place, knowing the names of half the people you saw; stop in the pharmacy for a soda; hold a conversation on the corner and talk through two “Walk” signs. Remember when customer service was normal, not special? Remember when you knew the shopkeeper by name—and she knew yours?
I taped a public radio program recently on independent bookstores, and what they do for our communities. Jack and I, as owners of a used book shop, see it happen often: people come in to “kill” fifteen minutes, wander ‘round the shelves, and their breathing changes. They breathe in that used bookstore smell, dust and ideas co-mingling, and they just slow down. They strike up a conversation, tell you whatever’s on their mind. They have a cup of coffee. And they leave smiling.
Of course, it’s not just bookshops. Greenhouses (little cheerful independent ones run by families or the like) family restaurants, craft supply places with a retired schoolteacher at the helm—all these sweet places serve more than their wares. They keep us grounded, connected, sane. The yarn store lady doesn’t just want to sell you her most expensive stuff; she looks at your hair and asks about your pattern and suggests a color and a wool style: chunky, angora, sportweight. She knows these things, and she knows what she has in her store, and she holds them up against your skin and says, “This makes your eyes stand out; this looks great with your hair; this is 100% wool and last time you were in here you said you were allergic, so not this one.”
In short, she knows you a little better each time you walk in, and you feel a little better each time you walk out. Is that too much to ask from a shopping experience? Because that sure as hell doesn’t happen in big box stores.
5) Hanging with friends can lead us down some very lovely alleyways of life.
The cash mob came about because a group of girls-turned-women got together and said, “You know what we should do?” My friends are the greatest: smart, kind, and savvy. We all get by with a little help from our friends, don’t we? In retail and in life. Up the rebels, peeps!