Archived Opinion

Spending your money where it helps the most

I was sorry to hear that Spring Street Café in Sylva had closed. Emily Elders opened the restaurant about a year ago. It was downstairs from City Lights bookstore, a happy marriage of good books and fine dining. Eat and read: my perfect life in a nutshell.

Spring Street focused on using locally grown organic foods. It was hip, and fun, and seemed well thought out and executed. I thought the recipes, service and atmosphere generally on target. So what went wrong? Well, these are still hard times, as Emily reminded us in an announcement she sent out about being forced to close.

“While no words can express our collective sadness at seeing our dreams come to an end, there are some important things we wanted to share with you,” Emily wrote. “In spite of all of our best efforts, this economy is, well, difficult, to say the least. It’s hard on everyone here in Sylva and throughout Jackson County. We hope that you will follow our lead in supporting your local businesses in every way you can, particularly over the next few months.”

I, for one, have been slipping when it comes to concentrating my dollars locally. Emily’s reminder is a timely one, particularly as we head toward winter. When shopping, try to shop locally, I’m reminding myself … again. I shouldn’t have forgotten in the first place. And, patronize small, independent businesses.

We all have our individual definitions of ‘local.’ To some, it is made up solely of the town or county in which they live. Locally, to me, however, means Asheville west. I’ve lived or worked in every county and town in that geographic region, and I view our local economy as encompassing this same area.

If I thought more about it, I’d probably include a slice of north Georgia in that mental map, too — at least Rabun County, because it kisses the Macon County line, and U.S. 441 is such an easy and quick route from one county to the other. And for those of us living on the Blue Ridge escarpment — in Cashiers and Highlands — it is equally natural to consider Transylvania County and Pickens County, South Carolina, ‘local.’ In fact, I think one should.

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Wherever we are talking in WNC, or northern Georgia or upstate South Carolina, running a small business is tough stuff. I know this firsthand: until recently, I was an organic farmer and beekeeper, and my livelihood was directly tied to people’s willingness to buy what I sold. No sales equaled no money. That meant no food on the table. There was a wonderful simplicity to my lifestyle then.

I learned a lot not working for others. Those three-and-a-half years represent the only period that I’ve worked for myself. (At least since I started gainful employment all those years ago. My first job was as a not-very-adept waitress at the Fryemont Inn in Bryson City. Spilled tea on the mayor my first week or so, in fact, and cried bitterly. Life can be very hard when one is 14.)

Working for myself enabled me to learn many valuable lessons. I discovered one’s bank account doesn’t automatically take a jump for the better every two weeks. In fact, the opposite is usually true. I learned humility. Oh, and upon losing the farm (isn’t my life a wonderful cliché?), I discovered what the Greeks meant when they discussed hubris. But that’s a topic for another day. Or, perhaps not: self-revelation can be a real bore for everyone but the individual involved. I’ve learned that, too.

One thing, however, I’m happy to have discovered is that Western North Carolina is a wonderful place to own and operate a business. People are supportive. Fellow business owners are generally helpful. There is a lot of encouragement.

The darker side? This region is downright scary come winter. The customer base dwindles to practically nothing after Christmas. Paying bills, buying food, putting gasoline in the car, these things can become very difficult, if not impossible, when cold weather sets in.

This is what Emily reminded me of, during a time when it would be natural if she thought only of the loss of her dreams.

So I’m hoping you give it thought, too. Define what local means. Buy locally when possible. It might help prevent another sad situation, such as the loss of Spring Street Café in Sylva.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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