Lisa Dugdale

Lisa Dugdale
Executive Director,
Think Local First of Washtenaw County

Tottered on: 26 September 2006
Temperature: 68 F
Ceiling: mostly sunny
Ground: leaf/walnut strewn
Wind: W at 8 mph

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TT with HD: Lisa Dugdale

[Ed. note: The website for Think Local First of Washtenaw County includes a searchable listing of member businesses and more details about events sponsored by TLF.]

HD: ... I assume that that I'm not the first smart-aleck to ask you, with the name Think Local First, the obvious question: So what are we supposed to think second?

LD: You know, you are the very first person to ask me that question!

HD: Really!? It's seems like an obvious smart-alecky kind of question to ask ...

LD: ... it does, and I feel better now that you've asked me that, because now I know to expect it! We just changed our name from Living Economy Network, so of course we got all kinds of variations of that!

HD: To me, Think Local First is at least a bit clearer what the philosophy is. Living Economy Network, I wouldn't have any real idea what that's about.

LD: And I can explain it, but it's not intuitive.

HD: But even though Think Local First, it's sort of clear what the philosophy is, it's maybe not totally clear what you do. So it's a membership organization?

LD: It is, in fact, a membership organization, but really it's an educational non-profit. We do have business members and individual members, but it's really a group that tries to promote the philosophy of buying from locally owned businesses that are a good fit with the way you want the community to be.

HD: So is it fair to characterize it as a Chamber of Commerce, but with a totally local focus?

LD: Now that, I knew you were going to ask me, because people have asked me that. No! Not really. There's already a Chamber and we don't really have an interest in being a second one. There's a Chamber here and one in Ypsi as well as other places. No, because we're really more of an educational group. We do a lot of speaking engagements about the value of independent business, why it's important to shop at locally owned independent businesses. And then we do some educational events for members to learn best practices from each other and to learn some cutting-edge values, more sustainability.

HD: So any business can sign up for membership, or do you have a filter that you apply to potential members?

LD: We sort of do. They have to be at least half owned in Washtenaw County and able to make their own operating decisions.

HD: So I'm thinking Domino's Pizza. Locally owned?

LD: [laugh] They're not! They're publicly traded.

HD: So any publicly traded company would automatically break the filter because the ...

LD: ... because they're owned by shareholders all over the country and world.

HD: But I have to say, when I order a pizza from Domino's--and I do that from time to time--I do feel good about the fact that I'm ordering the pizza from a quote-unquote 'local' business. So maybe I shouldn't feel as good as I have been?

LD: In particular with Domino's, the kind of initiatives that Domino's supports, it tends to be more of a conservative business. No, because they don't support local non-profits in the same way. They may use some local business for accounting and things like that, but they also might not. They probably also use other publicly-traded businesses. I'm sure they return a slightly higher percentage to the local community, but not in the same way that ... Silvio's Organic Pizza does.

HD: So I have to say that my reflex is, Yeah, if I'm buying local, that must be good. This whole thing [Teeter Talk] has a very local orientation. There's a very literal local aspect to the teeter totter: it literally lives here locally in my backyard--although there is this tension between the fact that the publishing means is the world wide web, yet the event itself is strictly local. Just to put it out there that generally I'm sympathetic to this notion of buying local. But then if I think about it long enough, I start to wonder, any product you might think about buying, was produced locally from somebody's point of view. Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffet have this song, It's Five O'Clock Somewhere, the idea being so let's start drinking now. So along those same lines, any product you might look at, it has local origins somewhere in some sense. So why do we want to just support the guy who lives down the road, as opposed to also the guy who lives in Shaanxi Province, China? Because the guy in China, he's got to make a living, too.

LD: I think it depends on a couple of things. It depends on what kind of working conditions the guy in China produced it in. Did he produce it in a sweatshop for a conglomerate and has to work 16 hours a day to make that? Or if it is something that you can't buy locally, and it's produced by somebody from China running a small business and making a living that way, that's fine, that's great. We really encourage people to buy from local and independent places. So buy local first because it's better for the environment and better for the community, but if you can't find it locally, then buy it from another independent business somewhere else in the country or the world.

HD: So when you say better environmentally? You're talking about the impact on the planet Earth?!

LD: Yeah, simply because it doesn't have to travel from China. If it travels from down the street, it's going to have a whole lot less environmental impact. And it's going to be somebody who you might know locally, who's trying to do something that they're passionate about and trying to make a living doing that. Support that.

HD: On your website, there's this Buy Local Week that's coming up, it's the 4th through the 11th of December, is that right?

LD: Fourth through the 10th.

HD: Okay, 4th through the 10th of December. There's mention of contests and prizes. Details to follow. Do you know any of those details yet?

LD: I do know some of the details, we're still adding some. Basically, what we want to do is to encourage people to shop at independent businesses during that week in particular. We chose it because it's a national event. There's a bunch of networks like ours that are networked together and we're hoping to have 30 to 50 communities declare a Buy Local Week that week. But the contest is basically to encourage people, to reward them for shopping locally. So you'll have a card and every time you get it ID-ed by one of our businesses, you can be entered to win a gift certificate for prizes from local businesses.

HD: So this is a game of chance as opposed to a game of skill?

LD: [laugh] That's true. We're also showing a movie, Independent America, that week.

HD: Is that what's being shown at Shaman Drum?

LD: At Michigan Theater. They interviewed Karl Pohrt [owner of Shaman Drum] for that movie, the filmmakers did. But it's showing at the Michigan Theater [9 December].

HD: Now, these prizes associated with the contest, are they multiple prizes provided by the businesses, or is there one thing that you would consider to be a really amazing grand prize that would make the whole thing worth doing for that alone?

LD: You know, that's a good idea, but no. We have some prizes, but we haven't really started collecting them yet.

HD: Now I'm forgetting her name, but what's the name of the woman who does the getDowntown program ...

LD: Erica?

HD: Erica Briggs, yes. When she was here on the teeter totter, I asked her a similar kind of walking-the-walk kind of question: do you find that there's people around who evaluate your own personal purchasing choices and try to catch you not thinking local first? They try to snare you in a Gotcha! kind of way?

LD: [laugh] Once in a while. I laugh, because that's why we say Think Local First. Because sometimes, for whatever reason, it's not possible to buy something locally. You can't find it, you don't have the time. There are reasons. So we don't want to judge people for not doing that. So once in a while, I'll find myself at a non-local place. And it never fails that I run into somebody from Think Local First [laugh].

HD: But if you're both associated with Think Local First, if you're both there, neither one of you can really throw that in ...

LD: ... exactly. It's not like I don't run into the same people many times at locally-owned businesses. No, people are pretty good about not doing that. But I do try to practice what I preach. Partly because it makes sense, and that's what I believe. But partly because when I first started this we were focussed on locally-owned businesses, but also on more sustainable business practices, and we were focussing on a wider variety of things. Then it became obvious that there was such a need for the Buy Local, Think Local First campaign, we really switched our focus to that. And so I didn't shop at locally-owned businesses as much as I do now. And once I started doing that, I noticed it made such a difference in my life. I went in places and had great conversations with people who knew what they were talking about. I had higher quality stuff, because they knew more about their product. It really made a difference in the quality of my life and I was kind of surprised, because I did shop locally before, I just increased the percentage.

HD: Conversations with people, that's listed out as one of the Seven Benefits in terms of creates community or promotes community. To me, that was interesting to read, because I might take the existence of these very large non-local big-box stores as evidence, in part, that a lot of people aren't looking for that, or don't value that, and in fact are fleeing that personal face-to-face interaction. Thinking about my own purchasing practices and, for example, the lumber that went into this teeter totter, I bought it at Lowe's. I didn't go-- what is it, five blocks--over there to Fingerle Lumber, and part of the reason was--Fingerle has this slogan 'We'll lead you through a project, not point you down the aisles' which is a great slogan--but in this particular instance, what I actually wanted to do was literally wander up and down the aisles. Because I didn't know exactly how I wanted to build this thing. I wanted to roam through the aisles and I didn't want some hardware guy there telling me how he thought I should build this teeter totter, or why something was going to be a bad idea. I really wanted basically to wander the aisles and say, Okay, I can use that size board, and this is the kind of pipe that I need, I can do it this way. I can get inspired by what I see. It didn't even occur to me to go to Fingerle for that kind of experience. For Fingerle, I think I'd need to have had a part list. You have to pretty much know what you're going to do from the get go.

LD: Would you really? I mean, I haven't spent that much time at Fingerle, but do you think if you went in there and said, You know, I would really prefer to browse that they wouldn't leave you to do that?

HD: Hmm, I don't know if they'd let you browse through where they've got all their stuff stacked in those sheds. I tend to think not. Now what I thought you were going to say, is there might have been somebody there who was willing to help you design this teeter totter and sell you the parts you need. I'm not sure if they have anybody who works there who would have the kind of patience it would take to deal with me.

LD: I'm often surprised at how what a great experience it is when people will take an hour with you trying to find the right thing, whether it's $10 or $300. I've been really amazed at that. Because they have a genuine desire to help and like what they do. I don't know. That's an interesting question you raise about community and people sometimes don't want that.

HD: Yeah, I think there's a reason why stores where you can be anonymous are very popular. And I think part of it is that people want to be anonymous, they don't want to have to have a face-to-face interaction with somebody, have a social transaction, they just want the thing they're in there to buy and nothing else.

LD: I think that says something about our society. I can see how everyone would feel that way sometimes, but if that's regularly the way you operate, that's kind of sad. You read those studies about Americans having fewer close friends, and less sense of community, and I think that's because we make what seems like the easy choice, which is to avoid it. But it ends up not enriching our life because of that.

HD: Well, I mean it is, I think, in a lot of ways easier, because you don't have to think up the response to, How are you doing today? Because the answer might be, Hey, I'm in a really foul mood, and I'm now even more annoyed that you're asking me, thanks very much Mr. Joe-Shopkeeper. Whereas if it's just a matter of grabbing it off the shelf, somebody scans it, you swipe the card, they say their perfunctory, Have a nice day, that's easier.

LD: I often have the opposite experience, where if people are so unhelpful and unhappy in big-box stores that I will often walk out with a big black cloud. There are some stores I just won't go in, because I can't find what I need, I can't find anyone to point out even where it is, and everyone is so rude and so short that it puts me in a bad mood going there.

HD: So what else do you have on your mind today?

LD: Well, I guess a couple of things. We have a new directory of independent businesses that's coming out.

HD: Is it still at the printer?

LD: Yes it's being printed by Goetzcraft ...

HD: ... a local printer?

LD: Of course.

HD: See, I was right there with the question prepared to bust you!

LD: It is [local]. See, well, it's tough. We really have to watch where we buy things, and where we hold events, and what we do, because we want to practice what we preach. It tells you some of the holes in the local economy where you'd like to be able to buy local, but can't.

HD: Well, say, like computers, when you go to think about hardware and software, to me, that's almost not even a reasonable question to ask, Is this computer locally produced?

LD: Well, is it locally built? There are definitely some people who build computers who are local and who fix computers who are local.

HD: I definitely know about people who fix computers who are local. My computer died last weekend and--what is it, I can't remember the exact name [Ann Arbor Computer Systems]--but I took it to a local place. Well, I say they are local, because I took the computer in, and there were these two guys who fixed it and one of them was the owner. So from that, they live within driving distance of here, so I think they probably count as locally-owned. So I interrupted you, you were talking about how difficult it is to walk-the-walk of thinking local.

LD: It is. It takes some thought. Because it's so ingrained in our culture to go somewhere fast, and easy, and anonymous, and cheap. Or you think it's cheap, until you buy the wrong thing and they won't take it back, or it takes you three times as long because you don't can't find anyone to help you find what you need.

HD: Right, there's this saying that, Cheapest isn't always least expensive.

LD: That's one of the things that big-box stores beat into people's heads: it's always cheaper, it's always cheaper. And what we want to say is, No it's not. There are things that local businesses have done--loan you a $500 tool that you need from Stadium Hardware, if they know who you are--instead of your having to buy it. I think that's a little more expensive if you have to buy it!

HD: Do you have a story about that from Stadium Hardware?! Because I have a story that actually runs almost exactly like that with the $500 dollar tool.

LD: See, they must do that a lot.

HD: I actually was trying to undertake a bicycle repair, and I had stripped some threads off of a crank, and I was trying to pull the crank off, but the standard bicycle tool I was using, I managed to strip the threads on the crank, so that tool was useless. And I figured going to a bike shop wasn't the best option, because they just have bicycle tools, too, obviously. But I thought, Aha, a faucet puller, that's what I need, I can pull this crank off with a faucet puller! So I walk into Stadium Hardware and asked one of the guys, and his response to my question, Where are the faucet pullers? is, What kind of faucet are you pulling? So then I had to fess up that I wasn't really pulling a faucet. So he gave me a quizzical look and disappeared around the corner and went and got Mike.

LD: Yep!

HD: Mike came out and said, Now what are you trying to do? So I explained it to him and he says, Well, I'm not going to sell you a faucet puller. That's crazy. What you need is wheel puller, and he rummaged around in his personal tool cabinet drawer and he says, Here, this is how it works, bring it back when you're done. So I said, Okay, you want me to leave a driver's license or something behind? And he just said, No, I've seen you in here before. And I have to say that that impressed me so much that if they sold giant pieces of wood like this, that's absolutely where I would have bought the lumber for the teeter totter. Now I just Think Stadium Hardware First, automatically.

LD: See, that's the kind of thing I mean. If you had gone to Lowe's or something you would have wound up spending more money.

HD: Well, I would have ended up owning a ...

LD: ... faucet puller, which is probably not something one uses very often.

HD: Not often. So do you know of a different story of them lending out a tool?

LD: Yeah, at some point we collected local stories from people about what great experiences they've had with locally owned businesses ...

HD: ... I'm worried somebody is using my story as their own, see ...

LD: ... no, Stadium Hardware might do that on a regular basis. That's really funny, because that story is in the very front of our directory. It starts out, Imagine a community where ... and then it paints this picture of this community where all of these wonderful things happen, and in fact it already exists in our independent businesses. No, they fix things free and they actually loan out equipment. I'm afraid you're not the only one!

HD: Hmm, I don't know, in the case of lending out a tool, you know, that's an owner of a business making an executive decision, because it's my place and I can do what it takes to make this person happy, and it's no real cost in terms of labor--maybe the consultation would count as a billable moment, if you're in a different line of work like the legal profession. But if you actually fix something, suddenly I want to say as a customer, I want that local businessman to charge me for that, because if you give it away for free then what you're saying is that what you're doing for me has no value.

LD: I'm thinking more the 30-second pull-this-out-and-put-that-in and hand it back to you.

HD: I dunno. I spent a brief time working for Hank Bednarz over at Great Lakes Cycling and that was something that came up quite often. People bring in a bicycle, and the mechanic can look at it and say, Oh that bolt there needs tightening, so if you tighten it and say, Have a nice day, then what you're saying is, that knowledge, and that expertise--knowing that it's that bolt there that needs to be tightened--and having the specialized tool that fits that bolt, and turning it a quarters of a revolution to tighten it, all that might seem trivial to someone who knows what they're doing. But the thing is, the customer didn't know what they were doing, and so you've provided something of value and you should attach a monetary value and say, Okay that's five bucks.

LD: Which is fine, but that's different from looking at the customer as just an opportunity to make as much money as possible and saying, That looks complicated, for 50 bucks we could fix that for you. So it's a question of integrity that comes out a lot. You want to go to a business where the owners have integrity. They charge you a fair price for what it costs. They won't overcharge you or say things need to be fixed but don't, and fix it right. There's a lot of value in that.

HD: So the directory is coming out soon? And that'll be distributed at all the ...

LD: ... all the member businesses will have some, the library will have some. Newcomers will get one through the Newcomer's Welcome Service.

HD: What is that exactly?

LD: It's a service that goes out and gives packets of information to people who are new to the area. An Observer, or Current for instance. Coupons for businesses that are on their list.

HD: Is this what used to be known as the Welcome Wagon?

LD: They're known as welcome wagons in some places. This particular one in Ann Arbor is known as the Newcomer's Welcome Service.

HD: Well, I have to comment on the weather, this is just a glorious fall day, it's a great day for you to come teeter totter.

LD: It is.

HD: So I'd like to thank you for coming and taking a ride.

LD: Well, thank you for inviting me.