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October 17, 2012

CAUFIELD: The New Albany 365 experiment

I picked it up off the hanger. It was like nothing else anyone in Southern Indiana was wearing. Before me was an intricately patterned purple and black tie-dyed hoodie, with some kind of black design across the front.

I hadn’t spent my vacation money yet, and at $40, this would take every last cent I had saved. I hemmed and hawed, until I finally took it up to the cashier and bought it. As soon as I left that little shop in Telluride, Colo., I put it on over my tee shirt and became the goddess of grunge and coolest about to be senior to have ever walked the face of the planet — at least in my own mind.

That was the Meyer family vacation of 1992, and since then, I’ve been enamored by small towns with unique character. There are hundreds like Telluride around the United States that are well known, and that have that kitschy touristy thing going on. But there are also thousands of others that aren’t smack in the middle of the mountains, or the north woods, or ocean side — and it is those that transfix me these days two decades later.

What makes a town livable, unique, and a place that one desires to reside?

It’s the unique, independent businesses that locate there, and the residents who take their hard-earned money and spend it there. It’s the towns that recognize that though the ubiquitous chains bring temporary jobs and short lived cash injections, it is the small, independently owned, and local businesses that make them vibrant, thriving, and sustainable.

Recently, yet another study has emerged that shows the impact on a local economy of buying at an indie, local business is roughly four times the impact of shopping at a box store — depending on what type of establishment. The study can be found here: localfirst.org/think-local/slc-economic-study

One of the more interesting things to come from this study was the fact that local retailers return an average of 52 percent of their revenues back into the local economy, while chain retailers only return about 14 percent. Restaurants are even more remarkable. If you go out for date night to an indie local restaurant, they’ll recirculate approximately 79 percent back into your local economy, while chains average around 30 percent.

Knowing these facts, I wondered how much impact one family could potentially have if they endeavored to buy completely locally for one year. How much is even possible to attain at a local level? What can any household reasonably expect to be able to buy from a local business? Must we rely on outside chains for some items, or could we somehow procure them from a local source?

One night in March, I couldn’t sleep, and I puzzled this out in my mind. If we attempted to buy everything from an independent, local business for one year, would we be able to? Would we spend more money, because sometimes things are more expensive from a business that doesn’t have the buying power of a larger corporation?

I’m pretty sure I shook my sleepy husband awake and informed him that on the arbitrary date of July, I was going to purchase everything from a local business for one year, and then blog about my experience. I probably got an irritated grunt, which to me was clearly assent that this was a great idea, and the New Albany 365 project was born.

Until June 30, 2013, barring the Mayan apocalypse, I am under the self imposed mandate to buy indie/local wherever I am. It is challenging, time consuming, and often times very, very humorous. I have to explain to complete strangers what I’m attempting and why — and I’ve had friends even offer to take money under the table from me and buy some cute clothes from Target.

Yes, I am going one year without setting foot in the place with the big red eye that makes you spend no less than $100 per trip ... and so far, I’ve triumphed — but just barely.

Oh, and 1992, my senior year? I definitely had the coolest hoodie … so cool, in fact, that someone borrowed it a few months into the school year. I’ve not seen it since.

— Kate Caufield is a New Albany resident.

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