It’s not every day you can ask an American, “how do you like your new currency?”
In Berkshire County, Massachusetts, however, people have been asked that question for eight years. That’s how long local businesses around the rural and mountainous county have been using the BerkShare to trade locally.
“BerkShares are a tool for community empowerment,” notes the currency’s website, “enabling merchants and consumers to plant the seeds for an alternative economic future for their communities.” The currency has since inspired communities around the world to launch their own standards for keeping resources independent and local.
Currently, BerkShares are tied to the U.S. dollar, and can be collected or redeemed at eight local bank branches around the county. Ninety-five US dollars equal 100 BerkShares but prices at stores are the same – essentially creating a 5 percent discount any time BerkShares are used.
The currency denominations feature local historical figures: the 1 BerkShare note bears a Mahican, of the native people of the region; the 5 bears W.E.B. Du Bois, born in Great Barrington; the 10 bears Robyn Van En, co-founder of the CSA movement in South Egremont; the 20 depicts Herman Melville, who wrote Moby Dick in Pittsfield; and the 50 bears Normal Rockwell, who spent the last 25 years of his life in the Bershire town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
Since its introduction in 2006, the BerkShare has been adopted by nearly 400 businesses of all shapes and sizes. Discussions of launching a credit line would open the currency to much larger exchanges. Each month, BerkShares, Inc. profiles a Business of the Month, including a half hour interview that covers the business’s local history and how it’s been enjoying the regional currency.
We’ve selected five of those businesses to feature below – trying to capture a complete micro-economy. Goods, lodging, farming, restaurants, and transit establish living essentials that, in Berkshire, are being satisfied by a local currency. The stories, captured by Schumacher Center for a New Economics Local Currency Program Director Alice Maggio, are all fantastic, truly capture the spirit of the region, and are worth checking out!
One Mercantile is, for owners Abby Webster and Andy Pruhenski, the perfect synthesis of their shared interests in design and craftsmanship, their Berkshire upbringing, and their entrepreneurial and artistic training.
This is a little home goods shop with a high aesthetics and high standards. “We focus on small-batch production and locally made goods. We are trying to create a unique shopping experience in Great Barrington, and we carry many things you won’t see anywhere else,” says Andy.
Located across from Trinity Church in Lenox, the Kemble Inn has been under the ownership of Scott Shortt since 2010.
Shortt has been lovingly restoring the Inn, carefully balancing the architecture of the Guilded Age mansion with modern furnishings and technology. The elegant lodgings at the Inn are complemented by the seasonal fare served at Table Six Restaurant—a perfect synergy of bed & breakfast, lunch & dinner, all under one roof.
If you have BerkShares in your pocket and you feel like taking an autumn drive on the back roads of Berkshire County, this is a good time to visit Rawson Brook Farm.
Even though most of Susan Sellew’s sales of Monterey Chevre are to local grocery stores and restaurants, selling her cheese straight off the farm remains an essential part of her business. She says, “You’re going to ingest this food, so you have a right to ask me any question about how I make it.”
Bellow has been a full time potter for the past twelve years. In 2000, he came back to ceramics—his “first love and passion”—after a 14-year detour into print journalism.
When asked how he has been able to make his pottery business work in a world that greatly favors cheap imports, he jokes that he considers it a miracle. But then he will tell you that to make a living as a potter you have two options, you either need to have a nice teaching job or you need to sell pots.
“Is this a taxi?” That’s the question that launched Abbott’s Limousine and Livery Service back in 1965.
Don Abbott had recently lost his leg in a construction accident, and was looking for a way to provide for his growing family. He had gone down to the town park to people-watch and think about his options. When a visitor to the Berkshires stepped off the Greyhound bus and asked Abbott if his car was a taxi, he recognized an opportunity.