Mass. county tests alternative currency

Project to boost local economy gets mixed support

February 25, 2007|By DAN BARRY | DAN BARRY,New York Times News Service

GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. -- The scene could have been lifted from a caper movie:

An old Volvo station wagon zooms through the southern Berkshire Hills. Its nervous driver pulls up in front of a bank. But instead of pulling off some heist, her gang begins hustling boxes of freshly minted currency in, not out.

Once inside, they pause to admire the wads of tens, twenties and fifties. No $100 bills, though - no Benjamins. But there are some Hermans, and even a few Normans.

So began this area's great socioeconomic experiment, one in which several dozen businesses agreed to include an alternative currency in their daily transactions and give a discount to those who used it.

Now people can pay for groceries, an oil change, even dental work with currency bearing the likenesses of local heroes such as Herman Melville and Norman Rockwell.

Be forewarned, though: These bills do not travel well. Try paying a tab in Boston with a Norman, and you could wind up in the Charles.

The central purpose behind BerkShares is to strengthen the local economy, perhaps even inoculate it against the whims of globalization, by encouraging people to support local businesses. Amazon does not accept BerkShares, for example, but the Bookloft on Route 7 does.

Five months into the experiment, some people embrace it, some endure it, some ignore it altogether. At the very least, BerkShares have reminded everyone just how complex this thing called community is.

The Volvo's driver that day was Susan Witt, white-haired and 60, and her bank delivery had been a long time coming. As the director of the E.F. Schumacher Society, which promotes concepts such as regionally based economies, Witt had spent a dozen years refining the idea of a currency specific to Berkshire County.

She raised the money, gathered a band of like-minded people and secured the support of banks and the Chamber of Commerce for a one-year trial. By late September, a Massachusetts company that specializes in banknotes had printed the bills, complete with serial numbers and anti-counterfeiting features.

Then there they were: 835,000 BerkShares stacked on a bank table.

In addition to Melville on the twenties and Rockwell on the fifties, there was a Mohican on the ones; W.E.B. DuBois, a founder of the civil rights movement, on the fives; and Robyn Van En, champion of community-supported agriculture projects, on the tens.

"I cried," Witt recalls.

Now people are walking into banks and exchanging federal currency for a different kind: 11 BerkShares for $10. The idea is that merchants will absorb the 10 percent discount, then use those same BerkShares to pay their own bills.

Theoretically, you would pay Roger the Jester with BerkShares for performing at your child's birthday party, the jester would use the bills to buy food at Guido's Fresh Marketplace, Guido's would pay its vendors, and so on.

Steve Carlotta down at the Snap Shot camera store says BerkShares have strengthened customer loyalty. And Melissa Joyce, manager of the Berkshire Bank branch on Main Street, says they have led to something almost forgotten in this electronic age: lines of bank customers, all waiting to trade Benjamins for Normans.

"Our whole goal is the face-to-face transaction," Witt says.

But the Great Barrington area, while beautiful to look at - cuddled in the Berkshire Hills, beside the Housatonic River - is a complicated place, with artists and affluent weekenders living beside farmers and blue-collar workers. And BerkShares have come to highlight the tug of war between the ideal and the real.

For example, the Berkshire Co-op Market took in an astounding 160,000 BerkShares in the first three months. But it soon found that many vendors would not accept the currency for large payments, which translated into a $16,000 hit in discounts. The co-op has since cut back on its participation.

Guido's has become BerkShares Central. But Rick O'Neill, the store's customer service manager, says it absorbs the 10 percent discount by cutting back on advertising, which in turn hurts local publications.

That is why John Conlin, the owner of an entertainment-system store called Tune Street, deposits his BerkShares rather than spending them in other stores. Guilt, he says. "I don't want to impose that 10 percent on another business owner."

Then there is the unsettling side of BerkShares that goes beyond the suspicion that their popularity is driven more by the discounts than by any sense of community. Simply put: If you're not with us, you're dead to us.

Paul Masiero, the owner of Baba Louie's, a restaurant on Main Street, whose family also owns Guido's, says he did not immediately join the BerkShares program because of the extra bookkeeping. Then he heard that some were saying baba-phooey to Baba Louie's.

"So, eventually, we signed up. And we've had a warm, fuzzy feeling ever since," he said.

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