Tuesday, February 18, 2014

To be "Local"

"there is folly in thinking that my interpretation of this word should be yours as well. There are no guidelines which determine where the word local may be appropriately applied"

I sit here in repose enjoying with my solitary seat next to a window. The events of today have guided me to a prime piece of real estate at the coffee shop. With my posterior firmly planted in a seat, which reminds of the bleachers from my high school gymnasium, I set about my routine. I’m a creature of habit, sipping on my prefered drink alternating my view between the streetscape and other patrons. I’m ready to be productive, I think?

This environment is unique and it’s comforting. The room is filled with solitary and social creatures, some of whom undoubtedly wish I would leave. It’s ok, I’ve been there. Like a snow leopard, I’ve spent hours waiting to migrate from a less desirable table to window spot.

The activity here is intoxicating. It’s alive, it’s laughter, it’s reflection, it’s casual, it’s romantic, it’s academic, it’s local, it’s pleasant. It’s contrary to what takes place on the other side of the glass. Out there people are isolated, they are waiting, they are going, they are starting, they are stopping, they are passing by. From their spot they can’t notice the details I do in here. From my perspective I can spot the slightly stressed student who has sought a change of scenery. I see the staff, one who would rather not be working and the other who still hasn’t got the nerve to ask the other out. There is a small group who have a much firmer grasp on youth than I do, there is a token hipster, and of course a smattering of tables occupied by two people who are no doubt exchanging half truths. As the night evolves, it changes slowly. People arrive, people leave, people get a second cup before they open a second book. The music is fading in and out, tunes which we recognize dictate the pace of conversation.

This is a place built for people. And it’s a place built to get me to spend money. I’d like to believe that someone was excited about all the people that would come here to sit, think, contemplate, read, talk, remember, and pontificate. Hopefully they did not gloss over the less glamorous half of what happens when people gather in large groups; someone has cried, someone has forgot, lost, felt awkward, and farted here but not necessarily in that order. This place changes throughout the day, in the evening the lights dim and little candles create a sense of ambiance that only a 2.99 cup of coffee can provide. 

I revel in the details of this evening. The details that exist primarily because this space is occupied with people. Sitting here surrounded by patrons bathed in the calming glow of yellow light, I feel far removed from the influences of the industrial, global, information based economy that myself, this coffee shop, and this community are smack dab in the middle. While I earlier referenced this establishment as a my local coffee shop, reality leads me to question how I interpret the word “local”. Many, including myself, naturally characterize this establishment as local and at the moment I can’t envision a better application of the word.

What are the characteristics which lead not just one, but many of us, to arrive at the same conclusion? The word carries with it a series of implications which may not be quantifiable, but they are recognizable (at least to us locals). At it’s core there are a set of tenets associated with the word local. From my perspective, local implies the intimate knowledge obtained from a relationship which adapts and grows over time.

However, there is folly in thinking that my interpretation of this word should be yours as well. There are no guidelines which determine where the word may be appropriately applied, there is no way to prevent another from bestowing the same title on the the Panera or Starbucks situated on the commercial strip next to the highway onramp. However, despite the best efforts of corporate edicts to create ambiance, calling these places “local” feels inappropriate.

When it comes to knowing me, the corporate substitutes for local flavor just don’t seem genuine. They know me, I don’t dispute that but there is no relationship. They know me in a manner which is cold, which is numbers, which is economics. I’m classified as a type of consumer, whose taste preferences and spending habits have been analyzed, scrutinized, and quantified. Someone somewhere knows how to create a bagel or iced beverage which I will find appealing based on my spending habits and patterns. I can’t say it’s all that bad to walk into an eatery 500 miles from home and be awarded a free cookie with my purchase, but despite the clerks attempts to feign interest in me I know it is unlikely our relationship will progress beyond these fleeting few moments.  At my “local” shop I bounce ideas off the barista to which they graciously humor me with responses. I offer unsolicited opinions about business practices, menu changes, and beverage offerings. The perks of being a regular are not captured by a rewards program which determines when I deserve a free pastry or half price drink. The perks of being a local are something accrued over time, a result of sharing in the joys and setbacks that life presents.

Seeing the local business grow and succeed is something in which I’m vested. Deep down I want it to succeed because I want to believe I could strike out on my own as an entrepreneur as well. I know that if this local establishment was to go the way of the buffalo, I’d feel a sense of loss, whereas if it’s corporate counterpart closed I’d feel little to no remorse. Additionally, the local establishment is a celebration of someone’s efforts, ambition, and vision. In contrast to this the relationship with the corporate counterpart feels awkward. People (of which I am admittedly one) spend years in a desperate courtship pining for it’s arrival. Much like a junior high relationship, years of anticipation was only met disappointment after that awkward first kiss. While it may take years for feelings to be mended, it also takes years for an empty building shell and crumbling parking lot to be repurposed into a second tier establishment.

I’m insulated, an observer from my perch here at the table.  With my headphones in I detach myself from humanity and plop along typing. I willing accept the influence from the warm glow of the lamp, the antique wooden booth which I’ve temporary claimed as mine, the smell of fresh coffee, the artistic visual enticements which I contemplate without the faintest authority. I call this place “local” because this place makes me feel something. I’m part of something when I’m here. The fact that they serve local beer, use local cheese, and sell the products from a local baker add to the fact that this place and it’s proprietor are as vested in the community as I am.  I’ll continue to return, transitioning from a new patron to a regular.

In this community my neighbors and I have bestowed the title of “local” upon many locations and establishments. While it may be difficult to determine what qualifies as local, a few moments of conversation reveal that there is a rhyme and reason behind it all. In closing, I find myself struggling to describe the scene this afternoon. Outside the next winter storm has descended from the sky blanketing the streets in pristine snow, as the minutes pass by the buildings in the distance are slowly swallowed by a gray hue as the storm intensifies. The air inside is warm, filled with the conversations of characters who like me have sought company from each other instead of the television. Being local today is being here, observing the intimate details like the sound of footsteps on the floors, the smell of freshly poured coffee, the warmth of my chair which I will soon trade for a sojourn which will take me down desolate streets and empty alleys with nothing but the sound of my footsteps on the the fresh snow. Being local is something which my neighbors and I determine by arriving at a point where we know each other and our surroundings through the subtle art of becoming connected to this place.