John Gerzema: Hyper-Local Legal Tender


Tom levins, owner of Tom’s Toy’s and Berkshares currency supporter: Great Barrington, MA.

In Western Massachusetts locals have created their own currency called Berkshares (named after the Berkshire Mountains) to help local retailers, restaurants and service people survive competition from national chains that were moving into small mountain towns. Thirteen bank branches, along with many businesses in the community, agreed to exchange dollars (100 Berkshares can be bought for $95, offering shoppers a 5% discount). Local artists designed the Berkshares as elegant bills, in denominations from one to fifty. Each bill shows the figure of a famous person from the region such as Norman Rockwell, Herman Melville, W.E.B. DuBois.

By 2010 more than $2.5 million worth of scrip had been issued and hundreds of businesses, from dentists to jewelers, had agreed to accept it. Guido’s grocery accepts the currency from customers and uses Berkshares to pay farmers for produce. The farmers bring the bills into town to buy their supplies. But in addition to promoting the local economy, the local currency gives people a sense of control over their own destiny. “We actually think of it as a way to separate our economic destiny from the government,” explains Susan Witt, who is executive director of the Schumacher Society and a leader of the Berkshares initiative. “We have a culture, and a tradition, of citizens’ solving problems on their own and not depending on the government,” she says. This independent streak doesn’t keep people from banding together in groups, as the Berkshares experiment shows, but it does make them wary of decisions made at a distance, whether that’s in the agencies of the federal government or the boardroom of a huge corporation.

Tom Levin (pictured above) accepts them at Tom Toys, a shop that offers what chain stores do not: carefully selected stock from a worldwide network of craftspeople and quality manufacturers and a level of service one might expect at a high-end jewelry store but not a place where you buy rubber balls and army men. Ironically enough, the conservative economic theorist George Gilder occupied the office above Levin’s store. Gilder once promoted a vision of a utopia built on high technology that could hardly be more opposed to the locally focused philosophy behind Berkshares.

Tom’s Toys is one of fifty companies interviewed for the Wall Street Journal best-seller: Spend Shift: How the Post-Crisis Values Revolution is Changing the Way We Buy, Sell and Live.

John Gerzema (@johngerzema/twitter) is president of Brandasset Consulting and Young & Rubicam’s Brandasset Valuator, the world’s largest database of consumer behavior, attitudes and values. Michael d’antonio is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, author and reporter.

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