Unwrapping Chicago: The Virtues of Buying Local for the Holidays

So the Black Friday frenzy is over, American Express' Small Business Saturday has passed and Cyber Monday has timed out. And thanks to the fact that Thanksgiving was Nov. 22 (as early as it can be), what can you do with almost a month of shopping days left before Christmas? Here's a suggestion: Visit locally owned small businesses in your community, and keep some of that holiday shopping money close to home.

Local First Chicago, a non-profit organization, is staging a campaign called Unwrap Chicago: Eat, Drink and Buy Local. The program urges consumers to take a "pledge" to shift at least $100 of their holiday shopping from national chain stores to local merchants.

I won't pretend to be an objective observer on this one. I have long favored shopping from local small businesses, which contribute greatly to economically sustainable communities and, as a norm, provide a much more laid-back and stress-free shopping experience than crowded malls and big-box stores.

Some small businesses even grow to become local institutions. During our last 10 years in Washington, D.C., my wife Barb worked for a bookstore called Politics and Prose, which emphasized customer service and had developed something of a national reputation for hosting live author events almost every day. How big a deal did this little, one-location store become? When Carla Cohen, a co-founder of the store, passed away in 2010, her obituary was on Page 1. Not of the Style section or the business section, but of the whole newspaper.

I believe strongly enough in supporting local businesses that I volunteered to write three pieces for the Unwrap Chicago blog, which features locally owned business in all 50 of Chicago's wards and most of the city's official recognized neighborhoods.

One of these pieces, which can be found here, focuses on The Spice House in the Old Town neighborhood on the North Side. Just like it sounds, The Spice House is redolent with the aromas of dozens of spices, ground and blended on-site, and other seasonings.

It is one of three Spice House locations in the Chicago area (the others are in suburban Evanston and Geneva), along with the two locations in Milwaukee where Patty Penzey Erd -- co-owner with her husband Tom Erd -- grew up. If her given name of Penzey rings a bell, then you are a seasoned spice buyer.

Patty Penzey Erd of Chicago's The Spice House

I will follow up with additional thoughts of why you should buy local, links to the other blog pieces I wrote, and excerpted q-and-a's with the owners of these businesses.

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