Friday, January 19, 2007

UK Sustainable Communities action

The UK Parliment is about to do a grand thing in terms of making the UK once again "a nation of shopkeepers". That is shopkeepers in the traditional sense, with the shops in a town's center actually being owned and operated by townspeople independent of any franchise. That means if you spend money in the shops, it will be recycled into other community shops instead of some substantial percentage going off to the main headquarters and a bunch of non-local investors interested only in a maximum return on their investments. Yes, local shopkeepers are investors, too, expecting a maximum return, but they aren't just thinking about money. Their rewards come in a lot of other forms that matter much more when it's your shop and your neighbors are the customers. Without that franchise looking over your shoulder, you can customize your shop to local demand, work the hours of your employees around local activity hours, and so on and so on.

The fly in the ointment, of course, is how do you encourage this? How do you give locals the power to turn away the chains without pouring all the money for your program into lawyers? Some of the possibilities are to lower business rates (business tax rates on property and profits) to locals. I guess I'm a radical, but I'd like to do something about the warehousing of buildings, leaving them unoccupied in the center of town (Norwich has a lot of these, unfortunately). Make them business incubators, rentable by the month at reduced rates for those starting out. Sell them off if they remain vacant for a certain period of town. Or, here's a really radical thought, legalize mini-business squatting or homesteading in such buildings.

The good thing is that all parties seem to be in agreement that something is to be done. What will be ironed out in the committees and whether it has any chance of actually being effective is yet to be known.

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Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Great Good Place: an idea

The idea of The Great Good Place, also talked about as The Third Place is not my original idea. There is a book out by Ray Oldenberg (spelled from memory) about it. When I describe it, I know you'll recognize it. If you find that place, wherever you are, it's as if you've found the doorway to the community.

Back in the early 70's, I lived in Charlottesville, Virginia. At that time, in that place, The Rising Sun Bakery was such a place. People who went there shared tables with strangers. Ideas hatched. Linkages were made.

The reason I mention it in this blog is that in a crafts discussion on Craigslist, someone asked what would bring customers back again and again to a yarn shop. There were a number of things mentioned, child friendliness, a proprietor generous with knowledge and advice, a gathering of knitters, etc. And then someone mentioned the idea of "a third place". The idea is that we all have at least two places that are our homes, our home and our workplace, and we all continually search for "a third place". Central Perk was that place in Friends. The beauty parlor was that place in Steel Magnolias. Apparently, Starbucks attempts to be that kind of place (which finally explains why people will pay so much for, let's face it, a cup of coffee, there).

Ah, but can any corporate entity (which, face it, Starbucks is, after all) be a real "third place"? Maybe, sometimes, if the people make it so, and if the corporate entity values such a phenomena happening. (I think back to a writing group at a Barnes and Nobels in Orlando, Florida, in 1988 which provided the entirity of my meager social life through a blighted year in exile without a car in Florida, though I'm fairly certain the bookstore had no idea of the valuable thing that was happening there.)

On the other hand, a small business that sets itself out in the beginning to become such a place puts intself in the position to offer something that larger entity it is trying to compete with will have trouble providing. I'm sure there must still be such places all over the world in town after town and neighborhood after neighborhood. If you know one, would you please comment on this post and identify it? Wherever it is, it deserves our patronage. It's certainly the first place I look for when I go to live in a new place, and I would love to know the name of Norwich's third place.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Have i got a site for you...

if you like the idea of patronizing Brit artists and designers and small manufacturers of all kinds of things (jewelry, bags, accessories, clothing, homeware, garden, natural products, baby things, and collector's toys, so far), check out Where Do I (

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

This is how we do it.

There's a great story in The Guardian this Saturday. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, of the famous River Cottage cooking school, will be opening a food store. Seems he was approached by Tesco (Americans, think Wal-Mart starting with groceries and moving on to the rest rather than the other way around.) to become the public face for the company.

One of his major points in teaching cooking has always been paying attention to what he calls unnecessary "food miles". Local sourcing pays off in good cooking. He is also concerned about the destructive influence of big supermarkets on village high streets (downtowns) and markets.

But cooking is his business. The rest of us may accept that he is right, but find it impractical to wander all over the county on a regular basis to buy locally.

So, he's going to make it easier for those who live in the vicinity of Axminster, his local town. He's planning on opening a store in the town center that will sell ONLY locally sourced food, taking care to support rather than compete with local enterprises.

Norwich!!!!!! You with the big market in the middle of town!!!! Are you listening????

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Saturday, November 25, 2006

Made Right Here

As my profile indicates, I come from West Virginia. lately, I've been wandering the web investigating just how practical the idea of everyone having jobs in little cottage industries might be. I;ve been using key word like "cottage industry" (of course), small-scale, micro-manufacturing (which turns out to have two distinct meanings, one having to do with tiny machines).

Imagine my surprise when I came upon a West Virginia program called "Made Right Here". It was like some kind of circle joining. Here I am, a West Virginian, having come all the way to the UK and joined an organization called "Produced in Norfolk", which might as well be translated "Made Right Here".

Then just the other day, I was watching a how is it made program and realized that filling prescriptions for glasses is a possibility for such a small-scale local manufacturing business.

Now I'm wondering to myself, just what do we really need in our daily lives that is better supplied by a huge enterprise? I'm making myself a medieval-style dress, and finding out how personalized the fitting is. I have one pair of boots handmade to fit me, and they feel SO much better than the best fitting mass market shoes. We're going out of our way to buy from local food producers because fresh tastes better (Yes, I know it saves energy and fuels the local economy as well.) There are just tons of things around this place that I would be perfectly happy to have local sources for. And there are just a few, mostly the eletronic ones, that I want a big company backing up the quality of.

I'm not sure exactly where I'm headed with this aside from the further elaboration of my self-designed life idea to include a more locally centered sourcing of all I can, and how that makes it more possible for others to self-design their lives as well.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Selling Self-Defining

We're all human (I think), with limited resources and energy and time. Taking more thought in the choices we make, looking further ahead than next month's bills and further afield than our own families, or our own city, or our own country in considering the consequences of our decisions soon gets complicated. If we tried to apply all this to each and every decision we made, we would tire out in about 10 minutes and discard the whole idea. Even the prospect of choosing which decisions we will consider more deeply seems the kind of task that tires us out in the mere consideration of it.
There are tools to help us. Investment plans that pre-choose ethical companies for us. Organic food offerings and local farmers' markets. Fair trade stores and fair trade goods. Travel companies that attempt to help us leave light footprints. Things like that.
What set me onto this line of thought was an encounter with someone organizing a gift fair with all these considerations in mind but very little consideration for practicalities. Fair trade companies would be featured, but so would local makers, who, by necessity, must charge more for their work and find great difficulty in competing with buy and sell, which, face it, even fair trade is. The fair trade focus and the objective of trying to get people to think about their choices, but a film crew coming from LA, when there is a good population of local aspiring film makers. And a show that ran till midnight, after which, the booth holders would have the tasks of packing up and getting home. Obviously, the organizer had never experienced such a thing from the booth-holder's view. Grand ideas of four separate areas, but only 12 booths signed up.
It's no wonder that a large proportion of the public just throw up their hands and cut back their considerations to family size when faced with all this at once. I'm trying to think of an strategy that makes sense for the individual to implement life changes one-by-one, the ones that are most practical and make the most difference first.
Let the brainstorm begin.

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Just posted this on Drapers Blog

and realized it worked for here as well. It's a description of a future clothing buying trip.

"Considering how short the fashion cycle (the time between when the trend enters the trade and when it enters the shops) is becoming so short these days, and considering the many new ways in which computers can be used to mechanize the design-to-garment process, and also considering the advantages ecologically, maybe the time of bespoke clothing will come again soon. A shop stocks one each of a range of sizes of each garment (or maybe a few more of particularly popular sizes)(how long would it take to produce just that many garments of a design?), the customer comes in, tries on what she likes and finds the appropriate size, steps into a 3-D scan booth so that the pattern for that design can be customized to her body, the order is entered (perhaps with a few detail options the customer can choose), and a few days later, the customer receives the item customized to her specifications. No waste of materials or transportation costs. Less stock space required. It's already being done for jeans and trainers. Why not for the rest?"