It all started with a photograph of the new John Baker location at Helvetiaplatz.
Mid July, I posted it on my Prisma Instagram account and got a like from a user called Shop Local. “A new follower,” I thought. Less than a week later, I received an email from June von Bonin asking if I would be interested in hearing about the Shop Local concept. Hardly ever one to say no, I agreed to a meeting a few days later.
Digital Goes Offline
Tucked away in a courtyard off a side street from Limmatplatz is the bustling Impact HUB and the Auer & Co. coffee shop. If you want to see the entrepreneurs of Zürich meeting in teams, with investors and clients or just getting into the nitty-gritty of coding, this is the place to be.
The café is the realization of a dream that the founders of Bear Brothers & Cow have had for years. The coffee is excellent, and the atmosphere is industrial yet warm. It is the type of place for which Zürich has been waiting.
I order my coffee and as I turn around, a petite woman with a soft voice questioningly calls my name. I guess this must be June. Seconds later, her husband and business partner Alain walks through the door, and we take a seat at a worn wooden table in the café.
I recognize Alain right away from various events like Creative Mornings in Zürich, though I have never really had a long discussion with him. One of the downsides of events with lots of networking is that you often end up talking to the same people over and over again. You only scratch the surface with all the attendees and miss the details – or interesting stories and connections.
On the same wave length
This meeting is nice – it feels relaxed. There is a feeling of mutual respect from both sides as we introduce ourselves. I am honored that they have asked to meet with me and to tell their story, and they are appreciative of my time.
They start to paint the landscape. June and Alain von Bonin moved from Schaffhausen to Zürich in 2000. The two own and run a digital communications agency, Visual Context. June is a passionate programmer and Alain is a graphic designer: a perfect duo.
Being a small and niche business, they often meet with clients in town. And cafés are convenient places to meet. Over the past few years, the couple has noticed that around the train station and along Bahnhofstrasse, the cafés have become more and more standardized.
Starbucks has seemingly taken over. It is not just Starbucks, though. It is H&M and Zara, Swatch and Apple. The big brands dominate Zürich’s high street. The well-travelled Alain and June have noticed that there is less and less that differentiates Zürich from other metropolitan cities. Where are the local institutions? Do they even exist anymore?
The impacts of globalization on small businesses.
The slow death of Bahnhofstrasse has been a topic in Zürich for years now and with every victim (Manor, Franz Carl Weber, Bally, etc.) there is a media frenzy about the tragedies of globalization.
Despite the outcries to save the shops and cafés, big business continues to gain ground in the Limmat City. Of course, this is also a basis for discussion and one that June and Alain take part in on a regular basis.
They tell me about how they lamented the homogenization of Zürich’s shopping opportunities with a friend and owner of Fabrikat. This discussion took a surprisingly positive turn when their friend told them that there are many independent shops in Zürich’s neighborhoods.
An idea was born: Shop Local.
What if these digital communication experts could do something to get people into Zürich’s side alleys? To discover the small, independent and passion-driven shops? The Shop Local app could do just that, featuring selected businesses. Just like the Slow Food Guide, these shops would need to meet criteria to be featured, but the user would be guaranteed a consistent value proposition.
The network economy.
For June and Alain, the idea resonates in many ways. The biggest being that we should do business where we live. If we are all to benefit from the quality of life in Zürich, we must support each other.
Shopping locally keeps revenues in the city. It keeps shops open and pays shop owners. While trickle down economics does not work, network economics does. The money invested into local shops flows into other local services.
Take John Baker. He buys only local ingredients, from flour to butter to eggs. He knows his suppliers. Buying bread at John Baker supports more than the bakery, but also farmers and mills in the area.
Many of the shops in Shop Local feature items like bags and clothing from local designers and makers. Having been self-employed for eight years, I know the difficulties in competing with bigger businesses and how difficult it is to get clients. Our world outlook starts to bond us, and I am convinced of Shop Local.
The entrepreneurs continue to explain that buying local often means buying less. “To buy something at Fabrikat is buying something for life,” Alain explains. The goods are of an extraordinarily high quality. Many come with lifetime guarantees and from companies that have been around for decades (or centuries).
H. Schwarzenbach is a traditional colonial goods store which has been around since 1864:
Hiltl, the world’s oldest vegetarian restaurant, is also running a vegetarian butchery:
We are not just talking about empty promises. The von Bonins understand that money is too hard earned to continually re-invest it – or waste it – on items that we need again and again. A set of carving knives should last and be handed down to your children and not broken after two projects. Quality is sustainable, and so is purchasing locally.
The end of our conversation is the start of a friendship.
As we wrap up our coffee date, I make several recommendations for shops to be included. Both June and Alain are very receptive to my inputs. I understand, though, that there are not enough hours in the day to make everything happen as quickly as we would like, and that implementing the shops in the app will take time.
They tell me that the shop list grows almost weekly, and that it is time intensive and done mostly in the evenings when they are not doing work for clients. I understand completely. As we part ways from the café, we leave knowing that there are others out there who think alike, who love their city, believe in small businesses, community, quality, and sustainability and see these things as being fundamentally connected.
Get the Shop Local app and discover Zürich anew.
Using the Shop Local app and platform to discover carefully curated shops is also an excellent way to discover the city.
When was the last time you went down Militärstrasse or Brauerstrasse in Zürich’s Kreis 4? Have you even heard of Beckenhofstrasse? The great thing when you walk down these streets is that you might discover new shops, pop-up stores or businesses.
It is easy to complain about how digitalization and internationalization are ruining the world, how internet shopping is killing our brick and mortar shops, how H&M is pushing out our domestic brands.
But complaining will not solve the issues. We vote with our francs and with the products we buy. When we buy from independent shops selling quality and locally produced products, we are saying that we want the people in those businesses and who support them to be part of our society.
Shop Local is a fantastic project to give small shops a voice and let conscious consumers find original and sustainable products while also re-discovering their city.
(All photographs copyright by Shop Local)
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