(This column was written for SB Focus during the height of the Covid outbreak. Though the restrictions have been lifted, the need to support our small and local businesses is just as important!)

By Liz Swaine

A friend recently quipped that it takes seven times doing something to form a habit. I’m not sure if that number is correct, but I do know that once a habit is entrenched, it is hard to break. That’s one of the things that has been worrying me over the last few weeks as local businesses have been told to close and stay-at-home has been encouraged. Locals, out of necessity and concern, have turned in overwhelming number to shopping online. Not only are we buying clothes, toys, music, books, and home décor, we are buying shampoo, makeup, groceries, and dog food. There is nothing we cannot get online, in many cases delivered to our door overnight. It is -unfortunately-seductively easy and getting easier by the day.

Once the stay-at-home orders are lifted and we get back to some semblance of normal, this is a habit that we need to break immediately. Our local small businesses that are mostly closed or just barely open, the ones that provide jobs and quality of life, the ones that make our city and community unique, are counting on it. They matter, and we should fight like hell to save them.

A couple of years ago, I travelled to Dallas to a workshop along with a smorgasbord of elected officials, (one from a small Texas town nearly wiped off the map by hurricane Harvey, the other, a city councilperson from Fort Worth) urban planners, a couple of developers and a significant smattering of folks with ideas but no title or position. The tie that bound us was that each person was there to learn how to fix what’s broken in their town or city.

As we talked, we realized the brokenness problem was universal to all, from tiny Hitchcock, Texas to intermediate-sized Tulsa, Oklahoma, to impressive giants Dallas, Fort Worth, and Austin. As I listened to Fort Worth, I was glad we weren’t them. As I listened to Hitchcock, I was surely glad we weren’t them. It’s like my Mom used to say, ‘Everyone has problems, some people just deal with them better.’

The representative from Dallas talked about the monotonous sameness of many cities, how many areas had become ‘Generica.’ I had not heard that term before, but immediately knew exactly the type place she was referring to…the sea of concrete, beige and big box, suburbs that all look the same with few trees and unused sidewalks, towns that merge into one other with no seeming beginning or end. Ironically, the office complex/apartment building/shopping center on Mockingbird Lane that hosted us looked like every other center we had passed in getting there and was populated only by chain stores. We were meeting in the middle of Generica.

We talked about ways to break out of that, to create the places where people want to come, of creating local identity by investing in- and purchasing from- local businesses. Our local businesses- the ones that have been told during COVID-19 to close and the ones that are trying their dead-level best to stay open and not lay off employees- are uniquely ours. We know the employees and often, the owners (who might be one and the same). They are committed to our community; they support our neighborhoods and causes. We can all point to wonderful experiences and great memories at our favorite restaurants, our neighborhood bar, our favorite gift shop and more.  One of the conference speakers said that before we can touch the mind, we have to touch the heart. All these businesses- from the small roofing business that has gone the extra mile to order hand sanitizer for customers to the tiny restaurant that is delivering groceries to make ends meet- are doing daily small acts of heroism. In doing so, they are touching our heats. They are doing their jobs. At the point that we can, let’s do ours and swing our support from online and far away to local. I am willing to break a habit to help them survive, and I hope that you will, too.