Small Businesses Rise Up

Date: 1 Dec 2022 | posted in: Building Local Power, Retail | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

What challenges are small, independent businesses facing? And what legislative solutions are on the way?

On this episode of Building Local Power, we are joined by three members of ILSR’s Independent Business team: Advocacy and Campaigns Manager Lauren Gellatly, Senior Policy Advocate Katy Milani, and Senior Researcher Kennedy Smith. Lauren, who manages relationships with nearly 30 independent business groups, tells us what she’s hearing from small businesses across the country. The list of challenges they’re facing is extensive, from procurement issues to private equity dominance in real estate. But time and again, Katy adds, we hear that the “leading threat to small businesses is monopoly power.”

This hostile environment for independent businesses isn’t an accident. It’s the result of decades of policy choices based on an idealized notion that bigger is always better. But there’s reason for hope: the misguided philosophy that has driven decision-making at regulatory agencies for the last forty years appears to finally be on the brink of being overturned. The New York 21st Century Antitrust Act, which is currently awaiting a vote in the Assembly, “would put a new precedent around what constitutes dominance at the state level,” Katy explains. And that’s just one example. Policy advocates and antitrust hawks alike are working diligently to turn the tables so that small businesses can compete on a fairer playing field.

The fight continues at the local level, too, Kennedy adds. Communities across the country have used federal money to support local grocery stores, created alternatives to the big food delivery apps, boycotted dollar stores, and banded together to fight corporate power. Success begets success, and we’re seeing momentum build at the local, state, and national levels.

“Our research at ILSR really centers around storytelling. We think this is really key to soften the ground for policy reforms and really to start shifting the way we think about how the economy works and how important it is to be engaging the small business voice.”
– Katy Milani

“There used to be distributive education training programs in American high schools, but that got phased out for the most part in the 1970s and early 1980s. So in essence, some communities are using their money to help build that sort of training and support infrastructure for people who have great business ideas but don’t have the capital to necessarily support it.”
– Kennedy Smith

“I think ILSR is really uniquely positioned as a research and advocacy organization to address the issues that are incredibly broad on a federal and macro level and the much more local level policy issues.
– Lauren Gellatly

Small Business Rising

The 21st Century Antitrust Act

Small Business’s Big Moment — this report suggests a dozen ways that civic leaders can use the American Rescue Plan Act to strengthen local economies by supporting small business development.

Midwest Forum on Fair Markets —  find Alvaro Bedoya’s speech here.

Find our dollar store research here.

Why We Can’t Shop Our Way to a Better Economy by Stacy Mitchell

The Tyranny of Convenience by Tim Wu

Find these books at your local bookstore:

Suburban Nation by Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Jeff Speck

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

The Great Persuasion by Angus Burgin

Kennedy Smith: I know of about half a dozen communities so far that have decided to use some of their American Rescue Plan money, ARPA money, for example, to support development of locally-owned grocery stores, which is again, going back to the dollar store issue, a direct threat. When a chain dollar store comes to town, local grocery stores are going to lose a thousand bucks a day in sales, and that really hurts them. So if you can instead use that money to support a local grocer who, in addition to paying property tax and paying salaries like the chain dollars would do, also is paying rent to a local property owner. In most cases, is hiring local advertising agencies, is hiring local janitorial services. The ripple effect for the community is enormous from that locally-owned business.
Reggie Rucker: Hello, and welcome to Building Local Power, a podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, dedicated to challenging corporate monopolies and expanding the power of people to shape their own future. I’m your co-host, Reggie Rucker, and on this episode we’re talking to not one, not two, you see, I’m doing my LeBron to Miami thing right now, but three members of the independent business team to reflect on the past year and set our sight on what’s to come in 2023. But before we dive in, let me throw it to my co-host who no longer needs to work out because she gets her steps in by carrying this show, Luke Gannon. What’s up, Luke?
Luke Gannon: Thanks, Reggie. Definitely getting my intellectual steps in. On today’s show, we are welcoming Lauren Gellatly, the Advocacy and Campaigns Manager; Katy Milani, the Senior Policy Advocate; and Kennedy Smith, a Senior Researcher, all for the independent business team. This year was a really big year for us, so I’m excited to jump right into this conversation. Lauren, I want to start with you. Can you tell us what is Small Business Rising?
Lauren Gellatly: Thank you, Luke. Small Business Rising is a coalition of independent business organizations and entrepreneurs who have banded together to address monopoly power so that small businesses can have a level playing field to compete. The coalition launched in 2021.
Luke Gannon: Can you tell us about who do some of these businesses represent? Who are they? What parts of the country are they located in? Can you dive into that a little more?
Lauren Gellatly: Absolutely. A lot of the power of this group is the diversity of the voices that are represented. The coalition represents more than a hundred thousand independent businesses. A very diverse group of industries, and geographically every corner of the United States. The partners range from local economy organizations like Local First Arizona or Cambridge Local First to independent business associations. Examples of those are the American Booksellers Association or the North American Hardware and Paint Association. So a very diverse group of industries and independent businesses that are representing the small business voice.
Reggie Rucker: So then Lauren, as I understand it, as you’ve been settling into the role you’ve been doing listening tour with a lot of these different associations and groups and trying to get a sense of how they’re faring in this environment. Can you share a little bit of what you’ve been hearing as you’ve been talking to these business groups?
Lauren Gellatly: Absolutely. I’m taking this opportunity of being somewhat new to the ILSR team. I joined the team in September and meeting with each of the more than 30 organizations to see what’s rising to the top for them right now. What are the top challenges, what’s top of mind, and how can this diverse coalition work together on a broad range of policy issues having to do with corporate concentration?
So I’ve been hearing some really interesting shared priorities. We’ve been hearing a lot about procurement from the different organizational partners and entrepreneurs. We are looking at the rise of state and local spending with Amazon versus directing those community and tax dollars to supporting the many local businesses that could be supported in different communities. We’re hearing about the high cost of credit card fees for so many different small businesses, and looking at the credit card duopoly that we have in place.
We’re hearing about the need for sustained funding at the state and local levels to support the work of these local economy organizations. What we found over the past few years since the pandemic is that some of the organizations have really taken this moment to partner and work with their state and local entities, and have really been able to thrive and grow; whereas some of the others are struggling a bit to get through this change in our economy and change in how local businesses are able to support them.
We’re also hearing about growing concerns on consolidation and market dominance by private equity investors. This is affecting a very diverse mix of industries. I mean, everything from veterinary practices to fishermen and the fishing industry. We’re also hearing about the rise in private equity dominance in real estate. And so, many of our communities, commercial real estate used to be owned by folks in our communities. Now it’s Wall Street portfolios, and the ownership is so removed from the actual communities themselves. Then lastly, something I’m hearing about is just the need for capacity building and making the case for advocacy as part of the work that these local economy organizations and these independent business organizations are doing.
Luke Gannon: It seems like there’s quite a diverse set of challenges that these businesses are facing from credit cards, swipe fees, to procurement, market dominance by private equity investors. Out of all of these challenges that you listed, Lauren, what is Small Business Rising going to focus on, and what set of policies will small business rising advocate for to address these challenges?
Lauren Gellatly: I think we’re really honing in right now in deciding as a coalition what makes the most sense to focus on and where the opportunities lie coming into 2023, and where we can have the biggest impact as a group of coalition partners. I think ILSR is really uniquely positioned as a research and advocacy organization to address the issues that are incredibly broad on a federal and macro level, and then also the much more local level policy issues. And so, that was part of why I was really excited to join this team. I feel like this is a great moment to kick it over to Katie and see her thoughts on this.
Katy Milani: We’re in a really incredible and pivotal moment the last year and a half since Small Business Rising launched. As Lauren said, April, 2021, we made a strategic decision that there was an opportunity to address big tech’s monopoly power. We’ve heard in ILSR surveys, we’ve heard from the SBR members, individual business owners, and our research that Amazon is one of the leading threats in monopoly power broadly, but one of the ways it manifest is in Amazon’s dominance as in the online marketplace.
At the federal level, there was a moment, there was an opportunity. We had over 18 month investigation that Congress did in two big tech monopoly power. We then had an appetite, a bipartisan appetite, to pass legislation to really address some of the issues that we are hearing. We hear at ILSR, but also that the congressional leaders were hearing when it comes to Amazon’s dominance over small and independent business, the way it preferences its own products. And so, we double down on that fight.
We also did a lot at the state level. There was an opportunity again to be strategic in how we as a new emerging coalition, where we engaged, we also saw opportunity at the state level. New York has a bill, the 21st Century Antitrust Act, which unprecedentedly, would put a new precedent around what constitutes dominance at the state level. We engaged in a coalition, a New York State coalition, and we’re really the go-to for the independent small business voice that the small SBR coalition was that go-to voice.
To round that out, what we saw was really effective and potent about the coalition and some of the organizing that we did was really around the storytelling. When you talk about monopoly and monopoly power, when the remedies are antitrust or competition policy, it gets pretty wonky pretty quickly. We’re talking to policy makers and they want to know, “How does this impact my constituents? What does it mean on the ground?” And so, we believe at ILSR and you see that in our research, that it really centers the storytelling. We think this is really key to soften the ground for policy reforms and really to start shifting, which we think is really important, to really start shifting the way we think about how the economy works and how important it is to be engaging the small business voice.
When small business talk about specifically how monopoly power impacts their lives, whether if its credit card swipe fees are just cutting in more and more into my revenue, Amazon is stealing my best ideas on its marketplace and copycatting them. Or bearing my product in the search engine or saying, “Hey, you want to be higher up in the search engine? Actually you got to use my warehousing,” and all these other added on services that maybe that small business owner doesn’t want to use or would prefer to use UPS. We hear about Walmart and you’ll hear this term about buyer power, right? Amazon has a lot of cloud. It’s a major corporation in retail sector and it uses its dominance in real ways to when it comes to buying supplies to stock it shelves. It will go to manufacturer and say, “Hey, I want you to sell this X product at a discount,” and they get those discounts. And what that means for small and independent businesses? We hear this a lot from independent grocers: that they pay more for the same thing.
And so, the storytelling, the choosing the fights really strategically, I think, has been something we’ve done over the last year and a half. Now we’re at this moment where there’s other avenues. We have the federal regulatory agencies as well. There’s more state fights. Other states are looking to what New York is doing. The Big Tech Bill haven’t passed yet, and so we are now having these conversations with the partners just to get really clear on, okay, what do we want to hone in on 2023?
Reggie Rucker: And so, if I kind of want to bring Kennedy in now, because as Katy was alluding to this storytelling aspect, I know I’m actually privy to some of the emails that I just forward straight to you with small businesses on the ground, particularly with the dollar stores is like, “Hey, we need some help. This chain dollar store is moving in.” Or when a community is on the verge of a sort of small business crisis, they throw up the bat signal and then Kennedy and Alice tries to come in and save the day. But can you tell us whether it’s some of those stories or something that you glean from, again Katie mentioned, the survey that we’ve done. What are some of your takeaways on the small business front that have really influenced the way that you’re thinking about the work that we do?
Kennedy Smith: Oh, wow. That’s a small question there, Reggie. I mean, I think Katy and Lauren really highlighted what some of these big issues are. My job here is to sort of tackle them at the local level and to hear what communities are dealing with firsthand in their work. Many of the solutions to these are policy solutions at the federal and state levels, but there are things that communities, people, can do on the ground in their communities. A lot of that really came to the head, I think, during the pandemic because of supply chain challenges that exacerbated the differential pricing that big chains are getting that smaller businesses can’t get and things like that.
But one of the areas where we saw it flare up quickly and this sort of local activism popped up is around third party delivery apps. With the beginning of the pandemic, all of a sudden nobody could eat indoors. Everybody was relying on carry-out and delivery. It was very, very quick that restaurant owners realized this is not going to work for us economically. We cannot pay these big third party delivery platforms like GrubHub and DoorDash and Uber Eats 30% or more of the revenue that we’re getting from meals and still survive independently when restaurants only net about 3% to 5% on their gross sales. If all of a sudden you’re paying 30% to somebody else, it didn’t work.
And so, we saw a lot of local delivery solutions pop up at the beginning of the pandemic, and some of them were incredibly low tech. It was like a guy who had a pager and you could call him and he would call you back and see where you are and go pick up the food. There was one community in Brentwood, Ohio, that realized, “We’ve been doing taxi service for senior citizens for years. We can do the same thing for restaurants and just deliver food for the restaurants instead of them having to call somebody else.”
Then just some very innovative new economy thinkers out there. There’s a bunch of people, a group of people in Lexington, Kentucky who popped up and put together this delivery co-op called Delivery Co-op where people join for 25 bucks a month, they get unlimited delivery from locally owned restaurants. The restaurant tours and the delivery people own the co-op. And so, they all share in the profits, and they keep the delivery fees really, really low. I mean, it’s like 25 bucks, you get free delivery. There’s tiny surcharges for tiny little things. Works so well economically for the restaurants, works well for the drivers, works well for the customers, and it doesn’t involve all this venture capital being pumped in to make sure that shareholder prices are high and revenues are high. A different kind of solution.
So that was sort of an early thing. As the pandemic has gone on and begins to resolve, the dollar store issue is really coming to a head now. I think that there’s something about the fact that dollar stores are sort of smaller scale businesses and they tend to locate in small communities or in smaller urban neighborhoods that makes it feel like it’s a challenge that communities, that just local citizen activists, can take on their own and tackle. And they’re doing it in big numbers. We’re seeing it in communities that are heavily Republican and communities that are heavily Democratic. Every kind of different demographic difference you can envision, all of a sudden all these community leaders are recognizing, “Oh yeah, this is a big challenge that we need to fight and we can learn something from other communities that are going through this.” It’s fascinating to watch this unfold.
Reggie Rucker: So I hate to interrupt this wonderful conversation, but we need to take a quick break and we will be right back. So, here’s the thing. As an organization seeking the end of corporate control in local communities, you’ll understand why commercial break sounds a little different. There’s no corporation selling you something in an ad, just me thanking you for listening to our show.
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Luke Gannon: One of the things I love about this work is that despite the challenges that independent businesses face, they always seem to be able to keep innovating, to keep coming back. It’s pretty amazing. But of course, they need help. And so, one of the things that Kennedy worked on earlier this year was we wrote a report on the American Rescue Plan Act. Kennedy, I’m curious if you can talk a little bit about that and how some communities have used that money. What has a success story been?
Kennedy Smith: It’s fascinating. It’s an unprecedented opportunity for communities to have money that they can invest in priority activities that they haven’t really had before. Many communities have launched or continued small business loan and grant programs that they had begun during the pandemic. Those things are useful, but there are some communities that are really thinking about it differently, and those are the ones that get me excited.
I know of about half a dozen communities so far that have decided to use some of their American Rescue Plan money, ARPA money, for example, to support development of locally-owned grocery stores, which is again, going back to the dollar store issue. A direct threat when a chain dollar store comes to town, local grocery stores are going to lose a thousand bucks a day in sales and that really hurts them. So if you can instead use that money to support a local grocer who, in addition to paying property tax and paying salaries like a chain dollar store would do, also is paying rent to a local property owner. In most cases is hiring local advertising agencies, is hiring local janitorial services. The ripple effect through the community is enormous from that locally-owned business. Using ARPA money for that is really exciting.
I’ve also seen a lot of ARPA money being directed into support for entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial development, investing in business incubators of different kinds, and in training programs. It’s not like you can go to school to learn how to be a small business owner. That used to be the case. There used to be distributive education and training programs in American high schools. But that got phased out for the most part in the 1970s and early 1980s. So in essence, communities, some communities are using their money to help build that training and support infrastructure for people who have great business ideas but don’t have the capital to necessarily support it. That’s really exciting to see. I think in the next year or two, as we see some of the businesses that have been supported by that start to roll out, we’re going to see some really cool new businesses and business models.
The American Rescue Plan Act money also gave money to federal agencies to support some of the work that they’re doing. For example, we’re working in partnership with Recast City with economic development administration to use money actually from the CARES Act, even going back sooner early in the pandemic, to make more money available for equitable lending, for revolving loan funds. The EDA works with hundreds of revolving loan funds around the country. That work is just fascinating as they’re finding solutions to overcoming some of the barriers that small business owners, especially those who are Black or brown or women or minority-owned, have encountered over the years. Using this money to help break through some of those log jams and find some new solutions for lending.
So I think we’re going to see a much more vibrant and dynamic small business development community in coming years because of this. And as a reminder to listeners out there, the American Rescue Plan Act money is not all committed yet. Cities still have another year, a little more than a year, to commit that money. So there’s still plenty of opportunities to get that money into some creative activities in your communities to support small business development and small business growth.
Reggie Rucker: Wow, those are some really great stories, Kennedy and Katy. I know that you used some of the survey results from earlier in the year to help influence some of the advocacy work that we were doing in New York. Can you talk a little bit about that and how we’re using the insights from the survey to really move policies forward?
Katy Milani: Even to add to what Kennedy was sharing of all the creative ways that ARPA money and other public investment is being used to shore up small business, and I mentioned also at the top around storytelling, that through our research we talked to a lot of small and independent business owners. One of the other things we do with the Small Business Rising partners is we’ve partnered with them to do an independent business survey. We’ve done this survey for, I believe, it’s now over 10 years. What we’ve consistently found is pretty fascinating that in one way, shape or form, monopoly power is one of the leading threats that small and independent businesses face. And so yes, we have the stories. We also have the data and analysis that we’ve done by surveying the Small Business Rising members. Actually, Kennedy and Stacy Mitchell were at the center of designing the survey and analyzing the results this past year.
But it really tracks with what we’re hearing and it’s reassuring for me with my advocacy hat on is when we hear from the partners, we often hear about Amazon’s control over the online marketplace. What we found in the survey was that 62% of the businesses that we surveyed, and this was over 900 business owners, said that Amazon’s control over the online market was very or extremely significant for them. Back to this buyer power, the Walmart issue, we hear this often from independent pharmacists that are a partner of independent grocers. Similarly, in the survey we found that 65% of the respondents said that the top challenge they’re facing is that their big competitors will strong arm suppliers. They’ll then win special discounts. Again, think Walmart or even dollar stores. Then while this means that those suppliers then charge the independent businesses more for the same product.
The third challenge, again it tracks with some of the anecdotal evidence we’ve heard, is that 58% of businesses reported that a major challenge for them is that their big competitors will sell goods and services below cost. They have so much dominance that they can sell the thing at less than they need. So they’re selling at a loss. Amazon does this a lot. It is a tactic specifically designed to drive smaller rivals out of business.
Back to what this means, bigger picture with some of the advocacy, at least we’ve done in the last year and a half around the big tech bills, there’s a real moment at the federal level, and it’s not a sure thing that this will happen, that Congress could pass bipartisan the legislation to get at not everything we’d like to see happen with big tech’s dominance and get at the heart of their power, which breakup has been a big priority for us or on day one, and I can say more about that later. But there is a bill that would say, “Hey, Amazon or Apple or the big tech companies, Facebook, you can no longer preference your own products over your rivals.” This is really popular. It’s kind of a no-brainer policy reform that would put a win, a stake in the ground. Because once you start having wins, then more wins feel possible at the state level and with the federal regulatory agencies. So the research really does show that these are reforms that are quite necessary and there’s just more advocacy to do to see some real wins.
Reggie Rucker: Actually, Katy, I would love to come right back to you because as you were laying that all out, my mind went back to some of the great stories we heard at the Midwest Forum on Fair Markets and how that was tied to the really incredible speeches that both Alvaro Bedoya gave, the FTC commissioner, and AG in Minnesota, Keith Ellison. Can you talk a little bit about how that came together and how that symbolized the way that this work is progressing and the opportunities that exist both at the state and federal level, and like you just mentioned, even in the regulatory agencies?
Katy Milani: Sure. This was an event that ILSR co-hosted with another anti- monopoly partner we work closely with, Open Markets Institute. The goal of this event, I mean this antitrust, again, getting kind of jargon-y and wonky, anti-monopoly movement, it can sometimes feel very DC-centric. What we wanted to show with this event, I mean we know with LSR because we do a lot of work talking to folks on the ground like Kennedy, Stacy, others. And so, the goal of this event was there were a couple. One, to really show the ways in which monopoly power, there’s organizing and advocacy happening on the ground in the Midwest, that this isn’t just a coastal thing that’s happening or phenomenon. The second was we now have FTC commissioner Alvaro Bedoya wanted to do a speech to really put a marker for him before he started his term as Commissioner around his worldview around competition and policy around antitrust as he was about to start in his new role.
What we thought was so important with that speech and quite groundbreaking was that, and we’ve been saying this in OMI, Open Markets Institute, and other organizations been advocating for this is, let’s move away ideologically speaking from this notion of antitrust really needs to focus on consumer prices or better competition. We do want more competition, but we also want fairness. When we talk to small business owners and the partners, they really get that this is not a level playing field when it even comes to tax policy and other policy issues. So, they really get it. His speech was, we think, so groundbreaking and important to lay a marker of where from a ideological standpoint, where competition policy needs to go in centering fairness and our policy design is so important. Now we have the Federal Trade Commission with three positions, three commissioners and a chairperson under Lina Khan that has that worldview. We’re seeing the FTC really start to move structurally in the way it’s thinking about its rule-making authority.
There’s more to do. But we do think that Commissioner Bedoya, and also as you mentioned, AG Ellison spoke really well about what the states can do and in his role as an Attorney General. The state, as we mentioned in New York, Minnesota’s also looking at a similar bill. It would essentially give the attorney generals more authority to address monopoly harms and would basically give them more power. We think that’s really important at this point to have some, we’d like to say, bright line rules. Essentially it means, this is what dominance means. This isn’t some wishy-washy thing. That if there’s some pretty clear dominant actors, Amazon, Walmart, let’s get some rules on the books and the law that gives the regulatory agencies including the AG to address dominance.
Luke Gannon: This year there has been a lot of political movement and momentum, whether it was in the Biden administration saying that we are not living in a competitive market, or whether it was Bedoya speech calling for fairness. And so, it seems like there’s been a lot of movement at the federal level. But Lauren, I want to turn it to you. How has that trickled down to small businesses? Do you feel like there has been a shift in this sort of ideological thought at a more local level?
Lauren Gellatly: I do. It feels like from my previous work before joining the ILSR team was working with one of the partners of Small Business Rising, Lowcountry Local First, which is a local economy organization based in Charleston, South Carolina where I still live. It felt sometimes there’s this sense in the community, and even with small businesses, that Amazon is this Goliath that can’t be changed and there’s nothing to do about it. It is what it is, and we all just have to figure out how to go on and struggle day to day and try to run our business in spite of it.
I think what Small Business Rising and the advocates and researchers at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and so many other folks who are working in this anti-monopoly space, they have shown that there is a real pathway. We have tangible, real legislation right now that could be passed before the end of the year that would make a true true difference. And it’s bipartisan. It’s just really exciting that the whole idea that it’s this runaway train that can’t be changed, that narrative is ending a little bit. I hope that Small Business Rising can help empower all these organizations and the independent small businesses to feel like their voice really does matter.
Because politicians love small businesses. All of them. They’ll all tell you that. And so, this is their opportunity to do something that will make a true difference. Because as CC Mitchell has pointed out, Amazon is our economic infrastructure. It’s not just a website. We have to use the tools that we have to level the playing field and make it more fair. We know it’s not going away, but there’s a true opportunity now to make it better for small independent businesses.
Reggie Rucker: That’s really great, Lauren. And so Kennedy, I want to bring you back in because clearly and obviously a common thread here, and one of the things I heard you talking about earlier Kennedy is, similar to what Lauren was just saying, it’s not this behemoth runaway train. We don’t know how to tackle this issue. There are very tangible ways both at the federal level and then even a lot of the work that you’ve been doing at the local level, ways in which we can make tangible policy changes that are going to make things fairer and easier. We’re going to do a future episode that’s going to dive a lot more into the dollar store work and some of those local policy options. But can you give the listeners just a taste of, again, what some of the options are that local communities can take advantage of to really create a more level playing field and greater sense of fairness in their communities?
Kennedy Smith: Sure. I mean, I think that some of these issues really do feel out of reach for local small business owners like Amazon. Where do you begin to have an impact other than changing people’s shopping habits at the local level? But the dollar store issue seems to really feel approachable to people, and in large part that’s because dollar stores enter communities by asking for exceptions to existing planning and land use laws. They ask for a zoning variance in order to build on cheap land on the edge of town, for example, that maybe wasn’t zoned for commercial development.
And so, the community can come out and speak at public meetings about that, and they are doing it in massive, massive numbers and pushing back against dollar stores. That’s exciting to see, that sort of empowerment happening at the local level. I think that some communities are beginning to connect the dots and realize, “Wait a minute, if this corporation is putting our local grocery stores out of business and hurting them and we can have an impact on keeping that business out, what else can we do?” I think we’re going to begin to see more of that happen at the local level in the near term future too.
But there are plenty of things communities are doing with dollar stores, for example. They’re passing what we call dispersal ordinances, which mean that you can’t have two chain dollar stores that locate within a certain distance of each other. That way the market isn’t overrun with them. A few years ago, most of the communities that were passing these were requiring a mile separation. Now they’re beginning to go back and even amend those and say, “Let’s make it two miles or five miles and put them even farther apart.” Some communities are limiting the number of business licenses that they can give to dollar stores at any one time. In that way you’re saying, “We don’t think the community can support more than two of these, so let’s limit it to that.”
There’s some communities where they’ve lost the battle and the dollar store has entered and the communities are beginning to organize effective boycotts and say, “Fine, come in, but we’re not going to shop there. See how long you can last, Dollar General. Let’s see if it goes for a year.” Lots of exciting things.
I think that somebody mentioned earlier that communities are learning. It was Katy who said their successes build successes at the local level. We’re seeing sort of these pockets, these sort of concentrations of communities in the country that are successfully fighting off dollar store challenges. I think it’s because they’re learning from one another. They’re seeing, “Hey, that community 30 miles up the road was able to keep out this dollar store. Maybe we can do the same thing.” And so, we’re seeing these pockets of activism developed in different parts of the country. Again, completely different parts of the country demographically and economically, but everybody seems to be on the same page about issues like this where they’re seeing that this corporate concentration is really harming the economy, our way of life, the kind of community that we want to see in the future.
Reggie Rucker: Are you saying that, again reiterating that point about success breeding success, Kennedy, it reminds me a couple of weeks back, we had an interview with Josh Ewing and it’s a really great podcast. I definitely suggest you go back and listen to it. But he was telling that same story around how you create momentum in the rural climate movement. That element of being able to see some successes in your neighbor and be like, “Oh, we can do that. Let’s follow that model. They’re being successful over there. We can do that, right?” It’s a really powerful narrative to be able to create policy change through this storytelling, through this sharing of stories and sharing of knowledge across local communities. That’s a really powerful and really cool thing to hear.
Luke Gannon: We are coming to the end here, so we want to get to our last question, which I hope all of you will answer. This is where we like to highlight and send people to their local bookstores. So our question is, what book have you read in the past year or couple of years or your lifetime, it doesn’t matter, that has really influenced the work and has made a difference in your life? I’m going to go to Kennedy on that first.
Kennedy Smith: It’s a tough question. I can never answer these. What is your favorite? What is the top? So I’m going to have to tell you about two. These are books I’ve read for the first time many years ago, but I read them again almost every year. Every other year I skim through them because they mean so much to me. One of them is Suburban Nation by Andre Duane, Elizabeth Plater- Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. It’s basically a book about suburban growth. But the piece that I really, the kernel that I took from it that has meant so much to me, is how chain stores, when you drive into a community, you drive past buildings that you recognize at just a glance, the Pizza Hut, the McDonald’s. You recognize them all because their logos are the same, their building shapes are the same. That sameness of corporate design is really eroding our sense of identity as communities and making our communities look exactly alike, and therefore, have less economic value. That piece, that message has always resonated with me and I love that book for that reason.
But another one that I really love, and I love this book so much that I tend to buy a dozen copies at a time and give them out to people who haven’t read it, is Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, which he wrote years ago. It’s fiction. It’s a funny little book, but basically it’s about Marco Polo going to meet Kubla Khan. Kubla Khan is old at that point and he’s blind, and Marco Polo was this young explorer. Kubla Khan asks Marco Polo to describe the cities of his empire to him because he hasn’t seen them in so long. Marco Polo describes these cities. And so, each chapter is one city. He doesn’t describe it so much in terms of the physical design of the city, but about sort of the will and the desires and the dreams of the people who live there. And so, these cities take on a physical form based on what they want their cities to be.
That’s what this work for me is really all about is, where do we want to live? What kind of community do we want to live in? What kind of relationships do we want to have with the shop owners who we come into contact with every day? How do we want to conduct our economies and our lives? That book really just sets my imagination on fire when I read it, and encapsulates for me what this is all really about, is we don’t want this kind of corporate domination that’s going to make everything seem exactly alike. We want unique, distinctive places with lots of opportunities for people, where people are just happy being there in the community and support one another. Those are my two choices.
Luke Gannon: Just have to say, Kennedy is amazing. The last, I was looking at this publishing company called Island Press and they had a sale where every book was half off, and I saw this book. It was Arbitrary Lines. It was like how zoning broke the American City. I was like, “Oh, Kennedy would love this.” So I sent it to her and she immediately replied, “Oh, I read it. I teach that book.” I was like, “Okay.” I thought, “Oh right, of course you have. That makes sense.” But those sound really good, Kennedy. I’ve put them on my list. I’m very excited to make an online library for ILSR of all of our podcast guests’ book recommendations. So stay tuned for that. But Lauren, do you have a book?
Lauren Gellatly: I’m going to cheat a little bit also and share too. They’re also not books. I will preface that by saying, support your local bookstores, resist Amazon. Go to your local bookstore. If they don’t have something, a good alternative and you just have to buy online, it’s, and you can designate your local bookstore who will receive a portion of those sales. So just a little local buying hack for you.
The first I was going to mention was, because it was a really big aha light bulb moment for me and my career and my work, and it was ILSR Stacy Mitchell, co-director, a TED Talk she did back in 2012 called Why We Can’t Shop Our Way to a Better Economy. And so, I was working at a local economy organization and, of course, we have very important campaigns to raise public awareness about all the amazing benefits of supporting local businesses. Then we also did direct entrepreneur support and education. But it came to me then that if we’re not addressing at a policy level the macro implications, the very deliberate ways that huge corporate power have set up and rigged the game, then we’re never going to change. We’re never going to get to where we need to get. And so, for me that was a change moment and that we need both and we need all of it. \.
Then another sort of change moment for me was an op-ed in the New York Times in 2018 called The Tyranny of Convenience by Tim Wu. It’s a really great piece about the tension between Americans professing love for small businesses and market competition, with the growing evidence that shows convenience trumps those other values. It asks us to examine the idea that convenience is always good and points to the connection between convenience and monopolies. It’s a really good one. I just always have it saved on my desktop because I find myself going back to it. So those are the two I’ll share, and support your local bookstores and your local media and publications and newspapers. It’s also very important.
Luke Gannon: Yes, I love that you broadened that question, Lauren, because absolutely, we welcome podcasts and articles and Ted Talks and anything else. I also second, Stacy’s Ted Talks is really excellent. Katy, do you have any?
Katy Milani: I’m going to do two. The first, I’m going to say, and these aren’t like the top ones, but these are the first that came to mind is Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sewer. Because it is kind of dystopic, it is very much that, but it’s also about community even under the most terrorizing environments, situations, and about survival. It just is kind of a story that one terrorized me but also is like, let’s not go down that route. That seems very possible. She’s a beautiful writer and love her, and it’s one you can’t put down even when you’re horrified.
The other one is The Great Persuasion. I’m looking at it right now, by Bergen. He’s a historian. I typically think … or journalist. Actually, I’m not sure, but it is a history-ish book. Now I think he might be a journalist because most books written by historians are very dry, have great bits of information, but very dry. But he writes more journalistically. What it’s about is ideology change and at the turn of the century, and basically it’s the beginning of where neoliberalism, this ideology came from, and how it happened. The actual mechanics of how this ideology one was formed in elite circles, academic circles, but then came into the political discourse, and now is the air we breathe.
I think it’s one I will read again. I read it a couple years ago, because I was just wondering: how do you win change the hearts and minds of how people think about? What I care about is how we think about the economy and how we think about equitable outcomes in our economy and in our society. That book had a big impact on me, even though it was like how the other side did it. But you can learn a few things. It’s very well-written.
Luke Gannon: I love that. Thank you all for those recommendations. I love to that you were like, you cannot limit me to one. We have to give you two. It’s great. This was a wonderful episode, great content. Thank you all so much for being on.
Reggie Rucker: Yeah, thank you all so much.
Katy Milani: Thanks.
Kennedy Smith: Thanks, Luke and Reggie.
Lauren Gellatly: Thank you.
Reggie Rucker: All right. Thank you so much for tuning in to this episode of The Building Local Power Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. You can find links to resources, references, the transcript, everything from this episode by going to Find Building Local Power under the podcast tab, and clicking on the show page for this episode. That’s
Luke Gannon: If you like the content of this podcast, sign up for our independent business newsletter where you will receive firsthand updates on our work. If this work inspired you, pushed you to take action, or gave you a new perspective, please consider donating to ILSR. Any amount is deeply appreciated.
This podcast is co-hosted by Reggie Rucker, who is a big sports fan and educator, a former rapper, and a truly excellent podcast host, among other things of course, I am your other co-host, Luke Gannon, who cannot thank our podcast editor enough, Drew Birschbach. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Dysfunctional. This is Building Local Power.

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Audio Credit: Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL Ft: Fourstones – Scomber (Bonus Track). Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

Photo Credit: Worcester Youth Collaboratives 

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Follow Luke Gannon:
Luke Gannon

Luke Gannon is the Research and Communications Associate for the Independent Business team.

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As Communications Director at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Reggie develops communications strategies and leads campaigns to build public support for ILSR local power initiatives. Contact Reggie with media inquiries.