By Caroline Odom
Over the summer, my favorite independent bookstore, E. Shaver Booksellers, reopened for in-person sales after transitioning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As I entered the store and browsed, I knew I could find the books at a lower cost on Amazon or from a large book retailer. But with this purchase, I supported a local business that faced uncertainty.
I grew up with an appreciation for locally owned, small businesses. In my hometown of Richmond Hill just south of Savannah, Georgia, the owners of small businesses were parents of my friends and friends of my parents. Supporting them meant directly supporting my neighbors.
When I moved to Athens to attend the University of Georgia, I quickly found my favorite local coffee shops, restaurants and another independent bookstore, Avid Bookshop. When I think of these places, the community members who own them and the many employed by them, I cannot imagine an Athens without them, but small businesses continue to face challenges from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The Small Business Association’s 2019 data reports that 30.7 million small businesses employ 59.9 million people in the United States, representing almost half of U.S. employees.
When polled in July, 90% of surveyed small businesses reported that they are now open in some capacity, but 70% remain concerned about financial hardship resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak, according to a small business coronavirus impact report by MetLife and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The pandemic contributed to an already significant gap between large and small businesses. Large online retailers had infrastructure and systems in place to maintain business that many small businesses lack. Small businesses are concerned, and as a consumer, I am too.
In Richmond Hill, I observed small businesses’ contributions to the local community. These businesses consistently donated to the high school fundraisers and holiday toy drives. As the community supported them, small businesses were able to return the favor.
Small businesses also factor into the culture of communities. I spent this past summer talking with business leaders in Birmingham, Alabama, while reporting for the Birmingham Business Journal. As Birmingham businesses discussed adapting to the challenges brought by COVID-19, they watched their city’s landscape change.
“We’re just watching every week something beloved or something that’s been part of the fabric of the city close,” said Feizal Valli, owner of The Atomic Lounge in Birmingham. “That fabric, that texture … That’s what these places are.”
Along with the community and culture factors comes economic benefits. Two-thirds of every dollar spent at a small business stays in the local community, and 50 cents of additional local business activity is generated as a result, according to the 2018 Small Business Economic Impact Study from American Express.
As I mature and consider how I value money, I am realizing the importance of not only how I spend it but also where I spend it.
Sure, I could have saved a few dollars by purchasing a new book from Amazon instead of from my Savannah bookshop, but it’s hard to beat the feeling of walking through the door of a place that has been a part of the city for over 40 years.
No Amazon “add-to-cart” button can replace being greeted with a smile, browsing the shelves under the watchful eyes of the store’s iconic cats and sharing a friendly conversation with the store clerk.
And when I consider how those extra dollars will impact the places and people I interact with every day, the cost becomes marginal.
Caroline Odom is studying journalism at the University of Georgia. She is a 2020 Cox-SABEW Fellow, a training program in partnership with UGA’s Cox Institute for Journalism Innovation, Management & Leadership.