The Local Anesthetic (30 days of Somerville-only shopping)

By Kristen Grieco

Shopping at Somerville’s independently owned retailers sounds like a noble community concept, but does it actually help the local economy? Are there certain consumer needs that our independents cannot meet?

Our FC tried to buy exclusively at autonomous Somerville shops for 30 straight days. Here’s what she learned.

Last summer, I noticed “Somerville Local First” stickers on what seemed like every door in the city.

While I usually buy my coffee and breakfast at local, independently owned shops – and I pride myself on finding gifts at the boutiques – when it comes to produce and my own clothing, I hit up the big box stores

But the stickers made me feel guilty. I wondered if Somerville businesses could, in fact, supply everything I need. To find out, I went whole hog for 30 days, buying everything from local independents and nowhere else.

Somerville Local First’s sticker campaign is hardly unique. More than 30,000 independent retailers in 130 US cities are part of the “Buy Local” movement. Joel Kotkin, a scholar of urban business trends and author most recently of The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, sees several demographic currents contributing to localism. More college grads are living with their parents in the communities they grew up in. Retirees, too, are more likely to remain in their communities, as opposed to moving to (say) Florida or Arizona, as was the tendency from 1950-2000.

Kotkin also notes a socio-cultural trend in which second-tier cities no longer have it in their heads to grow and become first-tier. “For example, the city of Bismarck, ND (population: 60,389) has decided, ‘We’re not going to be another Boston,’” he says. “Bismarck has realized it has other things going for it as a smaller city: quality of life, even foods that are native to the Dakotas.”

Cities even larger than Bismarck seem to be buying into localism as well. One study of Grand Rapids, Mich. (population: 600,000) projected that a 10 percent shift of resident spending to independently owned businesses based in Grand Rapids would create $53 million in new wages.

Here in Somerville, though, I was a buying-local population of one. And my month started small: I needed a bell pepper. Not a lot to ask. Not something I should have had to go to three different stores to find.


I started at Farmer’s Bounty (234 Elm St), but it was a short-lived trip. The produce, in general, looked like it had been languishing on the shelves too long. When I picked up a package of celery and snapped back a rubbery stalk, I was done. I went to Plan B: Reliable Market (45 Union Sq). The first thing I saw when I walked into the store was a row of vegetables – everything but bell peppers. The staff was helpful, asking me whether I was walking or driving before divvying up my purchases into bags.

So I went without bell peppers until I came across one a few days later at Dave’s Fresh Pasta (81 Holland St). But it was a container of marinara there – $4.95 for about a cup – that became a revelation. Now, I realize that Dave’s sells an authentically homemade marinara, and I have heard nothing but exceptional word-of-mouth about it.

Still, as I thought of the Italian family shame that would rain on me for spending that kind of cash on “gravy,” I decided to learn to make it myself. That idea became a habit during the 30 days, when I realized more than ever how convenience foods are far pricier than raw ingredients. To compensate, I became more efficient in my own kitchen, using everything in the fridge to avoid another round of shopping. All told, the local only plan was pushing me towards healthier choices too – more veggies, less meat and processed food.

Yet there were times I questioned if all this meant I was acting more responsible in a Local First way. When I stood in line at McKinnon’s (239 Elm St) holding a yellow onion with a “Peru” sticker on it, I pondered whether I was doing the community any good by buying imported veggies locally, especially at 20 extra cents per pound. Turns out Keynesian economic theory stands behind McKinnon’s. The Local Multiplier Effect says that up to 45 cents of every dollar spent locally will be reinvested locally, compared to 15 cents per dollar when spent at a corporate chain.

Still, I was paying more. I started to wonder: What did buying local do for me? It’s tough to find critics of this movement, but Russ Roberts, economics professor at George Mason University, attempted to set me straight: “Buying local helps the locals you buy from,” he said. “If you like their stuff and its price, that’s fine. If you pay a premium for inferior products, you’re hurting yourself. That’s it. There’s nothing magic about buying local helping ‘the community.’ End of story.” Roberts’s statement made me feel a bit better about my transgressions – and there were a few.


Try as you might, you cannot find Purina Healthy Kitten Formula at a Somerville local independent. (This is the only food my two picky cats can keep down.) The shopkeeper at Big Fish Little Fish (55 Elm St) forked his thumb at Shaw’s when I asked him where to get the stuff.

I gave up and drove to Target. The little monsters had to be fed somehow.

At Target, I practically ran past the cosmetics section that triggers 90 percent of my impulse buys and escaped with a $7 bill. I can’t remember the last time I spent less than $70 at Target, filling my cart with candles and t-shirts and other junk I wanted but didn’t need. Turns out, my 30 days had made me a more thoughtful consumer – and less of an impulse spender.

Mainly because those 30 days meant getting in my car, fighting for parking and digging for quarters – or braving the cold to walk somewhere. These inconveniences saved me money in the end, since they eliminated the chance of my succumbing to impulse buys at my regular haunts – Target, Costco and Shaw’s.

I have to admit: I did miss the thrill of buying a clearance candle in the home goods section. So I won’t be giving up my big-box shopping for good. But there’s an equal thrill at the thought of my dollars getting fed back into the community. That prospect will have me thinking twice about buying corporate when I can get something in my own backyard.

Three biggest challenges

Shopping locally for a month is an eye-opening experience, and it also tests your patience. Here are three moments when I was closest to giving up:

  • No mascara. Like many women, I do not exit the house without mascara, so when my tube ran dry during Week Two, I cursed my bad luck. Normally I get my cosmetics at Sephora and CVS. But a web search turned up nothing for makeup in Somerville, nor did any of my driving around. So I decided to give up the stuff for a month, scrounging up a little bit from the bottom of the tube for special occasions – and looking a little extra tired the rest of the month.
  • No tomato sauce. Convenience items are some of the most expensive to shop for locally. So instead of paying $4.95 for a container (about the size of one cup) of marinara at Dave’s Fresh Pasta – delicious though I’ve heard it is – I decided to awaken my inner Italian and make it myself. (My mother would be so proud.) Half an onion, a clove of garlic, some crushed tomatoes and some spices that I dug out from the back of my cabinets later, I had one splattered stove – and one delicious sauce that tasted better than anything I’ve had from a jar.
  • Parking. Circling Somerville for a spot was the least of my worries. The biggest pain was having the quarters in my car to pay a meter. While Reliable Market in Union Square has a parking lot, I was left largely to my own devices for other stores. More than once I missed the great expanse of parking that chain stores provide. (Editor’s note: To avoid relying on quarters, Kristen could have gone to the Traffic & Parking building and purchased a Park Card.)

Things I couldn’t find in Somerville

Think you can find them? Send a note to and tell us where.

  • Purina cat food.
  • A good book selection (outside the library).
  • Reporters’ notebooks, legal pads, etc. (I had to make do with “fashion” stationery.)
Share this:

One Response to “The Local Anesthetic (30 days of Somerville-only shopping)”

  1. [...] from a farmer’s market can attest, local food often just tastes better. As I found out when I spent 30 days shopping only in local, independent Somerville businesses as an experiment for a magaz…, there’s a whole economic movement around encouraging us to buy our everyday needs–not [...]

Leave a Comment