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Is simply “buying local” enough?

Joe’s Place on Route 30 in downtown Wayne probably serves the cheapest and arguably the best breakfast in town. Eggs and toast run about $3 a plate, pancakes $4 and a sandwich $3.50. If you were to walk into the tiny diner at 8 AM on any given morning, you would find a crowd of regulars sitting at the counter drinking their usual cup of coffee, reading the newspaper and catching up on neighborhood news.

The furniture at Joe’s is not sleek, trendy, or earth tone. There is no folk music playing softly in the background. Joe’s dark paneled walls are covered with pictures of locals sporting their “Joe’s Place” t-shirts at Villanova sporting events, around town and on military bases. Even a picture of Eastern’s own David Black and Tony Campolo has made it onto the wall.

One of the great thrills of eating at Joe’s is that if you eat there often enough, they eventually stop giving you a menu. They assume that you’ll know what to order. After all, why would you need a menu when you’ve been getting the same thing for months or years?

For all of these reasons (and many more, I’m sure I don’t know of), eating at Joe’s is not like ordering a cup of coffee and a croissant at just any breakfast spot, such as the typical Starbucks or Cosi. It’s not an experience that is or could be duplicated all over the country, off every highway exit and in every shopping mall. Joe’s has too much Wayne in it to be transplanted anywhere else and make sense. What would pictures of Villanova students mean in another town? Who else knows anything about David Black?

Learning to love places like Joe’s, I think, gives us a glimpse of what is lacking in many of today’s “buy local” movements. While it is admirable to jump in on the trend to shop at farmer’s markets or purchase other local goods, these movements offer a thin account of what it means to really live in a place and support its economy. They seem to purport a purely monetary vision of a local economy: the transfer of goods from person to person, farmer to restaurant, shopkeeper to consumer. While these are certainly important aspects of a local economy, there are others which may be equally or more important, but are often overlooked. One of these aspects, I think, is loving those things thatconstitute the unique nature of a place–those things that make a place this place in this town with these people. These are the pieces of local knowledge, which, like Joe’s Place, cannot be easily transplanted from one town to another.

I think immediately of my hometown’s high school mascot: the Downingtown West whippet. I doubt that any other town in the country would boast so proudly of a mascot like ours–a grossly skinny, rather obscure racing dog, very much unlike other more popular mascots, such as the bulldog, eagle, or lion. But this doesn’t matter to people from Downingtown. Why? Because the whippet is our mascot. It has a long history in our town, so we bear the dog proudly, putting its picture on bumper stickers and sweatshirts, and cheering its name loudly at football games.

Wendell Berry, a novelist and farmer from Kentucky, writes that preserving local economies “consists of the accumulation of local knowledge in place, generation after generation, children learning the visions and failures, stories and songs, names, ways, and skills of their elders.” Supporting and being part of a local economy entails more than just spending money. It means loving a place with all of its quirks and eccentricities. It requires dwelling in a place, not just shopping there.

 

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