GREAT BARRINGTON, MASSACHUSETTS–The mountainous Berkshires region of western Massachusetts is making money the old-fashioned way–by minting its own currency. This local scrip, called BerkShares, isn’t part of a secessionist movement or a nose-thumb at the federal government. Instead, it’s an unusual, successful, and perfectly legal way to encourage local spending.
According to Alice Maggio, local currency program director for the Berkshires-based nonprofit organization, the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, “BerkShares help us keep our money here, supporting local businesses which create local jobs, which pay into the local tax base.”
Using BerkShares is a simple process. Consumers can exchange their US dollars for BerkShares at any of five banks in the area, at a 5 percent savings; in other words, $100 will buy you $105 BerkShares. The BerkShares may then be spent at the approximately 350 locally owned participating businesses, with buying power identical to that of regular currency. On a recent afternoon at Bizalion’s Fine Foods in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a hummus platter and cup of coffee that cost slightly over $10 was purchased with 10 BerkShares.
Is this funny money? Not really. “BerkShares, launched in 2006, come from a line long of experimentation with local currencies here in the Berkshires,” says Alice.
Since the early 1980s, the Schumacher Center has supported this kind of experiment. As a response to an unfriendly loan market in the 1980s, for example, Berkshire Farm Preserve Notes were issued by local farmers to their loyal customers to help raise capital for spring planting. In another instance, a popular deli owner issued Deli Dollars to help finance his move to another location. Customers bought the Deli scrip that was redeemed later for sandwiches. “That actually was very successful,” Alice says, “because it was like he wrote his own loan repayment plan.”
When businesses are paid in BerkShares, they’re more likely to spend them in other businesses that take BerkShares, too. “So it reinforces a cycle that already exists,” says Alice, “of keeping money circulating from locally owned business to locally owned business.” And not spent in enormous chain stores which are national, not local, diverting the profits out of the area.
Beyond that, as most any business owner will tell you, cash is king. Phyllis Webb of The Magic Fluke Company points that she prefers cash to credit cards, to avoid processing fees. “And if we can take BerkShares versus plastic, we’re ahead of the game,” she says.
Jean-Francois Bizalion of Bizalion’s Fine Foods estimates that between 15-20 percent of his transactions are conducted with BerkShares, and they’ve accelerated in the last year.
According to Alice, some 135,000 BerkShares are currently circulating, and in the past seven years, over four million have been spent. Even better, the benefits are about much more than just cash.
“It’s relationship-building,” says Phyllis. “When you go in and you hand a BerkShare to somebody to pay for a product, you’re taking an extra step. You’re saying, ‘You know what? Not only do I shop locally, but I’m making this commitment with you.’”
Alice adds that using BerkShares can be a conversation-starter. “You create these connections, and you might have conversations with people that you wouldn’t normally have.”
The bills themselves are just slightly larger than US greenbacks, with a similar paper-feel. Instead of presidents, they celebrate some of the region’s heroes: a Native American on the one; sociologist and NAACP founder W. E. B. Dubois on the 5; Robin Van En, founder of community supported agriculture, on the 10; Herman Melville on the 20; and Norman Rockwell on the 50. The backs of the bills feature scenes and photographs of the area by local artists.
“Just to feel them, to look at them; this is a beautiful currency,” Phyllis says. “You want to spend them!”
For Alice, there’s something special about their tactile loveliness as well. “Just handing someone currency is different than sliding a card,” she says, holding up a 50 BerkShares note. “I love it, because they have the mountain that goes behind my house printed right here, and it says, ‘Money Well Spent’. They’re very intricate and beautiful, and they represent what we care about here.”
Video produced for TruthAtlas by Nick Poppy.
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