Local shops and makers are moving online

At Christmas, my sister and brother-in-law and I were talking about the challenge of local businesses setting up for online business and shipping. We know it’s not easy. But we were wishing we could support more local businesses that way.

We didn’t expect this kind of trial by fire.

We are living in a virtual world right now. While the pandemic is keeping us at home, we have to meet the world around us online. A lot of local shops in the Berkshires have closed indefinitely, and if they go on long without income, some may not be able to reopen, even when people can walk in their doors again. But some are finding ways to adapt. (You can find a list here.)

It’s hard, especially out in the country, for small businesses to change quickly. It’s harder at a time when many have seen a sudden and steep drop in their resources. But it could be vital, now and when we finally emerge from our houses and start to rebuild.

What would it look like, if we had a network of local businesses online, so that we could find them easily and find what they carry, and order from out kitchen table? This is the kind of ecosystem my sister and I were imagining at the new year.

We were talking on a BART train on a hazy afternoon, crossing the Bay. My family flew out to my sister this year for the holidays, for the first time, and so I had mailed almost all of my gifts. I always find them locally — coffee, chocolate, books, vinyl jazz — and I mail them myself.

It costs more that way through. A lot more. Shipping a midsize box can cost more than the gift in it. And it takes more time to find what I want to send, and it can be harder to know what’s out there. Does anyone within 50 miles make essential oils, so I can remember the scent of pine in winter? How about beeswax candles small enough for these slender holders?

I was wishing for a local sharing of information and resources that could give local shops even a fraction of the ability to find and send gifts that large online competitors have.

My sister wished that she could call the chocolate shop we went to growing up and get a box of nonpareils for my parents, the way she could call a florist. She would willingly support them, she said, if she could.

I’m thinking about that conversation right now, as local restaurants are turning into takeout and delivery overnight, and physical shops are closed. We’re all at home for now, and people may be trying to supply their needs online even more than usual, while they can’t get out. Many of us are also thinking about where our goods come from. When Stop & Shop runs out of flour and yeast, people start looking for local farms and breweries.

I still want to support local shops and businesses, but it’s harder to know how. There is no easy way to figure out where I can get local flour, or what local shops are set up to order online, or to deliver. I can only look them up one by one. So I am looking. I can get dark chocolate peanut butter cups from Chocolate Springs, or design my own shirt from Peace Train Tees. Northshire Bookstore and the Bookloft say they will ship me a novel. Berkshire Grown tells me that some local farms will deliver. I’m looking for more.

Not everyone can transition a storefront to a virtual business, but some can. I’ve seen some that are partly set up already. And we have website designers in the county who could help, and they are local businesses too. Are there resources that could help local shops who want to make the transition?

Could this be a time when we can spread the word about local businesses that are already online — and find ways to help more local businesses get online?

I know this is hard.

And I know that setting up a coffee roastrey to send me a bag of coffee beans instead of selling me one when I walk in the door is complicated in more ways than I can see.

But if it means I could support a local coffee shop instead of Amazon right now, would it help? Extend that question to all the different kinds of goods people may want or need right now, books and music and food. Could it make a difference in our local economy?

Right now it looks as though we are going to have to go on for awhile in this kind of island living. And when we emerge, our corner stores will need us, as we’ll need them.

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

If you’d like to see the website grow, you can join me for a few dollars a month, enough for a cup of coffee and a cider doughnut. Members get access to extra stories and multimedia, itineraries a bookmark tool. Let me know what you're looking for, and we’ll explore together.

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