Steve Bercu, owner of Book People, a large independent bookstore in Austin, Texas, has been increasingly concerned about the decline of the city’s homegrown businesses. Like the rest of the country, Austin has seen as steady influx of national chains. Meanwhile, the local businesses so central to the city’s sense of place and character are disappearing.
About a year-and-a-half ago, Bercu learned about the Boulder Independent Business Alliance (BIBA) in Boulder, Colorado and decided to replicate the approach in Austin. He ordered BIBA’s how-to information packet and started cold-calling local businesses advertising in the Austin Chronicle, an alternative weekly.
“Almost everyone thought it was a great idea,” says Bercu. The Austin Independent Business Alliance (AIBA) was formed and now includes more than 50 locally owned businesses.
“We have a fair number of well-known, larger local businesses involved,” notes Bercu, including Waterloo Records & Video, one of the best music stores in the country, KLRU-TV, the local public television station, and the outfitter Whole Earth Provision. AIBA also includes coffee shops, an appliance dealer, an optician, a motel, and a print shop.
Most of AIBA’s focus is on public education and marketing. The group’s window decals identify a business as locally owned and a member of AIBA. Print advertisements were initially aimed at recruiting new member businesses and featured such things as a “Declaration of Independents.” “That was our call to arms,” says Bercu. Future ads will be geared towards consumers and focus on the importance of independent businesses to the community and local economy.
The ad campaign has cost AIBA almost nothing. The Austin Chronicle donated free ad space and a local ad firm provided design assistance.
AIBA hopes to double its membership in the next few months. The group has asked each member to recruit one new business. When membership tops 100, AIBA plans to issue a directory of independent businesses. “The idea is to ensure that those who care know where to find alternatives to national chains,” says Bercu.
Actively engaging in local policy issues might be a possibility down the road, but for now, AIBA plans to concentrate on organizing and delivering tangible benefits to its members. Recently the association hired a staff person to provide administrative assistance one day a week, and hopes to soon be able to hire a full-time executive director.
“It’s not simple thing to start,” says Bercu. “Reaching critical mass is difficult. But once you get there—we’re getting there—it starts to take on a life of its own.”