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Beer from Michigan, shoes from Zappos – where to draw the 'local' line?

I'm sitting at home sipping my locally brewed Founders Backwoods Bastard – the best beer I've ever had. I've just finished eating a dinner made with locally pastured beef and some of that ubiquitous kale – locally grown, of course. (Did kale even exist ten years ago? I don't remember my mom telling me to finish my kale.)

My wife and I have finally gotten the kids into bed and are doing a little pleasure reading. As I dip into my book, I see a reference to another book I don't yet have. I operate on the principle that when you have a thousand books to read, one more can't hurt so I decide to buy it. Instead of writing down the title and stopping by Grand Rapids' used bookstores Argos or Redux on the way home from work the next day, or heading over to our locally-owned Schuler Books & Music, I instantly sign on to Amazon. With a few clicks, I have a new book in transit that will likely sit on my shelf gathering dust for years before I actually read it. A few days later, I arrive home to find the book, my latest DVD from Netflix, and some razors and hand soap I've ordered through Amazon Prime on my doorstep.

If you can't see the cognitive dissonance and inherent tension in the described situation, crack open another Founders (or three) and join me in noodling this one over.

We all seem to agree that eating and drinking locally is a good thing. Here in Grand Rapids, which has been named Beer City USA two years running, we pride ourselves on our world-class beer. And rightly so. While I'm no expert, I've tasted enough and observed enough to see that Grand Rapids' and Michigan's beers are making their mark nationally – and even internationally. When I took a tour of Founders recently, a good portion of those on the tour were from out of town. They'd come to this shrine of beer-making from across the Midwest to see how Founders makes magic in a bottle.

When I went to pick up our community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm shares this summer and fall, I was delighted at the number of farms represented at the new downtown market and the passersby purchasing things for their evening meals from the local farmers. Farm-to-table restaurants seem to be sprouting up – pun intended – around town.

And yet our rightly placed localism coexists with a seemingly contradictory fondness for online shopping. When it comes to many of our purchases – clothes, shoes, toiletries, books – we gladly pass by our local stores and vendors, fire up the computer and put in a big order on Amazon or Zappos.

What is going on here? And is there a way to reconcile the tensions inherent in a commitment to localism and our daily actions that often seem to be at cross-purposes with localism? Perhaps not in the current incarnation of our economy, which seems to be a mix of the global and local. In other words, we may be settling into a situation where certain goods that we used to buy at the local mom and pop store are more efficiently and cheaply purchased with one click on Amazon. On the other hand, we have become more concerned about where our produce and meat come from and how they were grown and raised. This makes sense. I'm less inclined to want to know the person who produces my shaving cream – or who even rings it up – than the person who grows the food and raises the chickens that I and my family eat.

But we also need to recognize that something is being lost in this as well. Affordability and efficiency aren't everything. I might be able to get certain tools and hardware online or at a big box store, but time and again when I stop by the locally owned Rylee's Ace Hardware here in Grand Rapids, I find the service and attention to my needs is unrivaled.

The Schick razor blades that I purchased through Amazon might be a few cents or even dollars cheaper than at my local grocery store, but the potential for interaction with neighbors, courteous clerks and others that a trip to D&W might afford is lost. Buying on Amazon also means my dollars aren't supporting my local community and its merchants.

None of that provides an answer to the dilemma – especially those of us who think it matters where we buy our food and goods. Perhaps it comes down to what Wendell Berry described in his Jefferson Lecture several years ago about our generally unsustainable economy:

"We are all implicated. We all, in the course of our daily economic life, consent to it, whether or not we approve of it. . . . human life has become less creaturely and more engineered, less familiar and more remote from local places, pleasures, and associations."

As we sip our locally brewed craft beers, it is something to ponder – without getting too ponderous. If we cannot resolve it, the very least we can do is have one more Founders.

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