Shop Strong, Shop Local

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Lead Photo: Courtesy Thrifty Garden

 

In mid-February, when whispers of the coronavirus were just beginning and “social distancing” hadn’t yet become part of the national vocabulary, a small group gathered at Thrifty Garden near downtown Fort Myers. The plant-focused shop owned by Rick Molek, 38, is one of a handful of locally owned businesses in Gardner’s Park, what many consider to be the heart of the Fort Myers shop-local movement.

It was early evening, and Molek poured wine by candlelight to the 10 or so plant enthusiasts in his shop. They talked propagation and fertilizer as Molek’s pup, Makers, circled the room, sniffing and looking for back scratches. One couple brought out a photo of a flagging maranta and asked the group’s opinion. “Stop using tap water,” someone offered. 

The after-hours gathering was just one of the events that Molek hosted preCOVID. His Thrifty Garden schedule was filled with classes, plant swaps and pot lucks in an effort to bring in customers who would, hopefully, buy local.

“I don’t see myself as a competitor with the big box stores,” Molek says. “I don’t think Home Depot’s worried about me. I can’t do what they do, and they can’t do what I do.”

What Molek and other locally-owned shops and restaurants offer is something national chains don’t: community. “I spend a lot of time with every customer building relationships that turn into friendships that turn into a community,” Molek says. “One nice thing about being an entrepreneur is getting to build something that I’m passionate about.”

In the early days of the virus, when non-essential businesses were shuttered but the state of Florida had not yet issued the stay-close-to-home order, Molek organized a pantry out of his shop. People brought in whatever they could afford to share—eggs, pasta, paper towels, baby wipes, books—and others dropped by to pick up items they needed. “It’s a good example of something that’s only possible because of the community that has developed through this business,” Molek says. Rani Richardson, 48, who owns Random Acts of Art on 12th Avenue South in Naples, echoes Molek’s sentiment. Her shop features items handmade by artisans around the country. When asked what sets her locally owned business apart from the chains, she says, “It’s making a connection; not only with my customers, but with the people whose work I sell.” When Richardson was forced to shutter her shop during the pandemic, she turned to online sales. Though the revenue helped offset some of her expenses, it wasn’t nearly enough. “March is usually the month we make our money to get through the summers,” she says. With three brutal summers in a row—after Hurricane Irma and red tide—businesses such as Richardson’s are facing another difficult stretch.

Now, more than ever, community retailers are calling for customers to spend their money at locally-owned shops. And shopping locally, Richardson says, has a pay-it-forward effect. “Think of the shops that support your favorite local charities. When it comes time to do a fundraiser or hold an auction, businesses like mine are the ones you come to.” 

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