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Chain drain

There were two pharmacies in the village where I grew up outside of Boston: the neat one owned by Mr. Margolis, where my brother and I picked up my father's medicine, and the cluttered one with the nudie magazines on display. This is where we bought my mother's cigarettes. Even though we had to cross a dangerous intersection to get to Mr. Margolis' shop --- and there were no nudie magazines --- we preferred it because the Big Red gum was one cent cheaper per pack.

Then the nudie magazine pharmacy went out of business and a CVS opened nearby. My father vowed to never fill his prescriptions there. He ranted about chains putting the little guy out of business with their lower prices and shoddy service. Our ears perked up at that. Lower prices? More gum!

We had to go to CVS to buy cigarettes now --- Mr. Margolis wouldn't carry them --- and learned Big Red was still cheaper at his place. Once, when we crossed the big intersection just for gum, Mr. Margolis yelled at us.

"Why are you crossing that dangerous street?"

"The gum is cheaper?" we said, scared.

"Forget the price," he said. "It's safer for you to shop at CVS."

I started to babble about chains putting the little guy out of business. He cut me off. "No one is putting anyone out of business." He opened the register and gave us a dime to cover the difference for 10 packs of gum.

A few weeks later we returned, hoping to score another dime. He shooed us out. Soon he closed up shop and went to work at the pharmacy counter at CVS.

I don't know what local radio personality Michael Warren Thomas would make of this story, but the issues it raises are germane to his new Savor Independents campaign. It highlights how even the youngest consumers struggle making decisions in their own economic interest while also having a social conscience.

The demise of independent businesses has long bothered Thomas, who has promoted local products and services on his weekend radio shows on 1040 WSYL-AM for a decade. Savor Independents is his grassroots campaign to strengthen support for and increase awareness of the little guy.

In the case of my brother and me, the socially conscious thing to do was also the most economical (Mr. Margolis --- the little guy --- had cheaper gum). But when Mr. Margolis told us to shop at CVS, it wasn't lost on us, even then, that he was turning business away. We also doubted any chain-store clerk would ever know us, never mind give us money.

Part viral marketing, part 17th-century tradecards (used to advertise businesses before newspapers were widespread), and just a little subversive, Savor Independents is a two-pronged campaign that might just work if people can grasp the concept.

One prong is the website (, the other is the business card. The site lists local independent businesses organized by category (restaurants, auto repair, pharmacies, etc.). Business owners pay a nominal $10 annual fee for a listing, which will cover printing costs for the business cards, Thomas says. Customers can use it like an online, independents-only yellow pages. One key feature of the site allows users to read and offer feedback about businesses just like, Thomas says, eBay.

The business cards are for owners and employees of independent firms to fill out with their business name and contact information and pass on to customers and employees at other independent firms. Those people will, in turn, add their place of work (assuming it's an independent) and pass the cards on to their customers and the employees of other independent companies. And so on.

This is not, as many assume at first, a discount card. In fact Thomas is adamantly opposed to discounts in this instance. "A discount is a different incentive to shop at an independent. You do it for the discount or you do it because you think it's a good idea." With all the competition they face from chains, Thomas says, the last thing he wants to do is ask independent businesses to give discounts.

Thomas, a City Newspaper contributor, hopes instead to call attention to where we spend our consumer dollars and redirect some of them away from chains and back to the community. No one has more to lose, he says, than the owners and employees of independent businesses. When these places close they lose their jobs.

His cards and website cite some pretty compelling statistics: For every $100 spent at a chain store, as little as $13 stays in the community. By contrast, for every $100 spent at an independent business, as much as $45 stays here. And, the site points out, "If you order online or mail order, virtually nothing remains in Rochester."

Still, though, my bargain-hunting, gum-addicted inner child suspects that Mr. Margolis notwithstanding, chains are generally cheaper. Not true, says Thomas. He points to several examples of independent businesses saving him money: Insurance? Tuke Agency saved him hundreds. Roast beef? Ralf's European Delicatessen beats Wegmans. Oatmeal? Abundance Cooperative Market beats the supermarkets.

Thomas concedes that chains can be convenient. Whenever he can, though, he takes the time to patronize independent businesses where he trusts the employees and their products.

"It's part of my entertainment," he adds. "I meet interesting personalities in these great little stores." I know what he means.

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