Opinion

Local businesses are the community’s base of common knowledge | Guest Column

By BILL ARNEY

Should we have franchise fast-food chains in town? Some people say we should spend our money in local businesses and remember that corporate franchisers vacuum money from the local economy.

Others say, “Let the market decide.” Franchises will be built — we’re reminded they’re already here — the fuss will die down and the market will, as it does in matters of money, decide.

But there’s more at stake in the fates of local businesses than where the money goes. Local businesses are the community’s base of common knowledge.

A franchisee gets everything he needs to know in the corporation’s Policy and Procedures Manual, the repository of all information needed to produce a McBurrito or a McSandwich. Turn knob A on franchiser-provided oven, insert corporate-produced roll blanks, and follow the next four pages of instructions to produce a simulacrum of a sandwich.

Local business people embody their knowledge. At our very small bakery, Café Demeter, Pam doesn’t follow instructions from New York or Hong Kong. She feels the bread dough to see if it’s still flabby or vital, if it’s come alive. Only knowledgeable fingers know the difference. For her, the butter’s temperature on a thermometer isn’t the issue; her question is how the butter and dough are folding together today, in this weather, this humidity, this place. That knowledge makes a great croissant. Every one of our local bakers knows through all of their senses what makes good cake, pie, bread, pastry ...

Start with any business built around a competence in craft and think your way through our little commonwealth of knowledge. Farming? We enjoy a deep, rich vein of the extraordinary knowledge of how to get good food out of a rock. Turning food into a feast? There’s a rich stew pot of island chefs. Getting “fish to your dish”? Got that. Making the dish to fit that fish? Lots of potters. Boat building and boat repair? I only have to walk the docks to find that know-how. Getting sweet water from the ground to my glass? You can watch people doing that. Framing a house? Milling wood? The healing, therapeutic, restorative arts and sciences? The fine arts: theater, music, painting, stone carving? The stock of community knowledge is broad and deep.

You don’t need the Yellow Pages, that map of the market, to look up “local businesses.” I just thought about a few of the people I see around town. Many of them are making money from their know-how, but even when they don’t, I can still rely on their contribution to our community’s common knowledge.

Franchisers have to be clever because they know the information in Corporate Policies and Procedures only improves slightly their chances of making it in any market. But while the market is making its amoral choices, I’ll place my bets on the people I see and on what I know they know. I’ll try to put my money on people’s wisdom and knowledge over corporatized information.

— Bill Arney is owner of Cafe Demeter in Friday Harbor.

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