#ShopLocalChallenge lifts Baltimore businesses and economy

A few weeks ago I received a call from a local business owner: “I don’t think we’re going to make it through the holidays,” she said. I was taken aback. I thought her boutique store was thriving. She has a prime location and a loyal clientele that includes my wife. She listed familiar challenges: Transportation and parking, crime, and the perception of violence. Suburban shoppers unwilling to visit the city. The increasing popularity of online shopping.

“It feels like the city doesn’t care about us,” she said.

She’s not alone in that assessment. Like many small business owners, she has poured her heart and soul into the community she lives and works in. She was the first employer to sign up when I started a summer jobs program for teenagers. As a leader of Fells Point Main Street, she spends countless hours promoting local businesses. Yet, her frustration stemmed from a sense that the city is too willing to chase outside investment and spend money on manufactured marketing campaigns without nurturing the great businesses already here.

A few weeks before Christmas, we launched the #ShopLocalChallenge. The idea was simple: Spend money in local shops. Get to know the merchants who built the businesses. Promote their stories with the hashtag #ShopLocalChallenge. Since launching the hashtag, several friends and fellow Baltimoreans have shared stories about great local stores. It’s popped up in neighborhood Facebook pages and received positive coverage by the local news.

The #ShopLocalChallenge is not just about lifting up individual businesses but Baltimore’s economy as a whole. Baltimore is home to 50,735 businesses. More than half are minority owned. Nearly 200 manufacture locally-made goods. Research shows that small businesses play a significant role in employing local residents and providing opportunities for their advancement, especially for women and people of color. Shopping local is a form of reinvestment in our city and ourselves.

Last week, I visited two bookstores that opened within a few blocks of each other in Fells Point. Entering Pyewacket Books feels like walking into a book lovers home — because you are. Marta Kumer, the shop owner, opened the door with a big smile. “It was my dream at age seven to own a bookstore,” she told me. That dream was not easily achieved. Ms. Kumer was a single mom who struggled to pay the bills. Her son suggested Fells Point when she was looking for a place to retire. She was enchanted by the friendly people and quirky storefronts, many of which operated out of the owners’ homes.

Baltimore enabled Ms. Kumer to become a home and business owner. After seven years of rehabbing her house, she opened Pyewacket Books downstairs. “At first, I worried about crime. I was afraid that if I kept the door to my home open, someone would come in and rob me. Most of my friends thought I was crazy. What I’ve found is the people that come in here are wonderful. They are hungry for a space to read and connect,” she said. Ms. Kumer glanced at her shelves filled with rare and classic literature. “How can anyone who likes old books be a bad person?”

Greedy Reads is just blocks away. It was opened by Julia Fleischaker, a plucky Maryland native who spent a frenetic first career in publishing in New York City. Ms. Fleischaker strives to create a welcoming space, recognizing the division wrought by racial segregation. Her shop specializes in books written by women and authors from marginalized communities. The first time I came in, Baltimore’s own D. Watkins and Devin Allen were reading from their books and signing autographs. “To make it in this city requires extraordinary hustle and creativity,” Ms. Fleischaker told me, after taking care of a customer.

“Baltimore has some of the most innovative people in the world. Greedy Reads is a place for everyone to read and connect over good books.”

Pyewacket Books, Greedy Reads and other locally-owned businesses offer more than quality merchandise. Their proprietors recognize that in our world of instant online access and non-stop social media, we’ve lost some of our human connection. Their stores are sanctuaries for Baltimoreans to re-engage with each other. They are sites of connection and community. They need our support.

In 2019, let’s double down on Baltimore. Let's lift up the brave souls that make Charm City unique. Our story will not be written by a P.R. firm, but by people like Ms. Kumer and Ms. Fleischaker, who see the best in Baltimore and reflect it back in the spaces and things they create. #ShopLocalChallenge.

Zeke Cohen (zeke@zekecohen.com) represents Baltimore’s First District on the City Council.

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