Good Deals: Buying With BerkShares

Berkshire Eagle - Charles Bonenti -If you shop in South County, you can not only buy local, you can also pay for what you buy
with local currency.

Since Sept. 29, more than 225 South Berkshire businesses have agreed to accept
"BerkShares" from customers in place of federal dollars.

The project is part of an effort launched by the E.F. Schumacher Society and the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce to get people away from shopping on the Internet and back to shopping on Main Street.

The BerkShares are good only in stores that accept them and in banks that redeem. Chain and Internet stores don't accept them.

The benefit to local merchants is more customers. The benefit to customers is the face-to-face contact and the personal service that builds a sense of community, said Susan Witt, director of the Schumacher Society.

BerkShare users aren't so much saving money as supporting the local economy and strengthening the community, Witt said.

Here's how it works:

You go to one of five Great Barrington, Sheffield or Egremont banks that have special BerkshireShares accounts and buy, say, 100 BerkShares in any combination of denominations. They will cost you $90 in federal currency, which the bank deposits into the BerkShare account.

You go to a participating merchant and buy something that costs $100 federal dollars. You hand over your 100 BerkShares, for which you've paid $90. The merchant uses the BerkShares to buy something from a participating local supplier, who uses them to buy from a participating producer and so on.

The 10 percent discount is only taken if someone goes to the bank to redeem the BerkShares for federal currency. Then, 100 BerkShares will buy $90.

Since the launch in September, Witt said, about 415,000 BerkShares have been circulated — meaning purchased. With redemptions, the money on deposit in the participating banks right now totals $126,050 in federal currency (or 140,722 BerkShares), she said.

Witt says that while the experiment is catching on, most purchases so far have been for food or other day-to-day expenses. The push now is to get people to buy "big ticket" items like auto parts, or appliances or professional services that are also crucial to a local economy.

Anyone can buy BerkShares, she said; you don't have to live in South County or bank with a participating bank. But you can only spend them with participating local merchants.

You also have to carry the Berk-Shares around with you and physically pay "cash" with them.

But that's the purpose, Witt said, to get people back in local stores again. And once they try it, they may find they really like it.