A Bang for Your Buck in the Berkshires | How New England Can Change the World
But as the nation prospered and consolidated, the federal currency became the thing we meant when we said “money.” It’s always come with drawbacks, however: the bust-and-boom cycle, for instance, that saw many communities issuing scrip during the Depression. Beyond that, the sheer power of money–the fact that you can use it to command someone in China to do something for you–can create problems just as it solves them: The folks in China, or at Walmart headquarters in Arkansas, may take away the jobs your community depends on, for instance. Through the 20th century, as consumers transacted more and more of their business at a distance, local food systems waned; then big-box stores reduced the civic engagement that came with Main Street.
It’s probably no wonder, then, that the impetus for BerkShares came from the E. F. Schumacher Society, a Great Barrington foundation formed to promote the legacy of the British author of Small Is Beautiful. The Berkshires were an early hotbed of the local-food movement: Robyn Van En, whose face graces the 10 BerkShare note, founded one of the first two CSA (community-supported agriculture) projects in the country in the mid-1980s at her Indian Line Farm in South Egremont. When the famous economic historian Jane Jacobs called for regional currencies in a talk in 1983 at the Society’s annual meeting, her plea fell on receptive ears.
“We’d started with a microloan program [in 1982],” Witt explains. “We got people to open savings accounts at local banks and pooled that money to collateralize loans for useful things. Mostly they went to women, and for products that weren’t really understood by traditional bankers.” Then a favorite local deli came looking for money so it could move. “We said, No, you have your customers; borrow from them.” And thus was born “Deli Dollars,” which let people loan money that could be redeemed in pastrami, say, once the expansion was complete.
“It got huge press,” Witt says. “People were really interested.” The local Chamber of Commerce asked the Schumacher Society to help with a summertime promotion: Whenever shoppers spent $10 at any of 70 local stores, they got a $1 certificate that they could redeem over three days in September. “People came all the way back from Cape Cod to spend $20 worth of these certificates,” Witt recalls. “Merchants loved it. And since we had an Excel spreadsheet going, they could see how interconnected they actually were.”
The leap from gift certificate to currency came in the fall of 2006, when several community banks offered to issue the money. “You have to remember,” Witt says, “local bankers are just local guys, their customers are local businesses; they’re thinking of what will work for these local businesses. They’ll stretch for them.”
Here’s how it works: You walk into any branch of the five banks that offer the notes and hand the teller $95 in U.S. dollars. She hands you 100 BerkShares. You spend them at the deli, the bar, or the bookstore. The bar owner then takes her BerkShares from the till and spends them at the deli, the bookstore, or Jakob Kent Jewelry. Or, if she has to pay for something that nobody local is producing, she takes her BerkShares back to the bank and reconverts them into dollars, at the same 95 percent exchange rate.
Some people get paid partly in BerkShares; some towns are considering taking them for certain fees and taxes. It’s not an experiment anymore: The 2.5-millionth BerkShare went into circulation last fall.
It’s also not the only new approach to money under way in New England. In Greater New Haven, for instance, SHARE Haven Time Bank is busy converting spare hours into spending power. You offer something you’re good at; at press time, the Web site listed a variety of services, from cat sitting to architectural design. If you spend an hour helping someone in the network, you’ve earned an hour of someone else’s time; you can get someone to shovel your drive, or give you a massage afterwards.
Hour Exchange Portland is larger and more established. Current projects include making sure the homes of all 600 active members get weatherized with the donated labor the network can mobilize; you get spray foam insulation, caulking, and weatherstripping, and you pay it back to the system in baking, or midwifery, or whatever it is you do.