GREAT BARRINGTON, Massachusetts (Reuters) - A walk down Main Street in this New England town calls to mind the pictures of Norman Rockwell, who lived nearby and chronicled small-town American life in the mid-20th Century.
So it is fitting that the artist’s face adorns the 50 BerkShares note, one of five denominations in a currency adopted by towns in western Massachusetts to support locally owned businesses over national chains.
“I just love the feel of using a local currency,” said Trice Atchison, 43, a teacher who used BerkShares to buy a snack at a cafe in Great Barrington, a town of about 7,400 people. “It keeps the profit within the community.”
There are about 844,000 BerkShares in circulation, worth $759,600 at the fixed exchange rate of 1 BerkShare to 90 U.S. cents, according to program organizers. The paper scrip is available in denominations of one, five, 10, 20 and 50.
In their 10 months of circulation, they’ve become a regular feature of the local economy. Businesses that accept BerkShares treat them interchangeably with dollars: a $1 cup of coffee sells for 1 BerkShare, a 10 percent discount for people paying in BerkShares.
Named for the local Berkshire Hills, BerkShares are accepted in about 280 cafes, coffee shops, grocery stores and other businesses in Great Barrington and neighboring towns, including Stockbridge, the town where Rockwell lived for a quarter century.
“BerkShares are cash, and so people have transferred their cash habits to BerkShares,” said Susan Witt, executive director of the E.F. Schumacher Society, a nonprofit group that set up the program. “They might have 50 in their pocket, but not 150. They’re buying their lunch, their coffee, a small birthday present.”
Great Barrington attracts weekend residents and tourists from the New York area who help to support its wealth of organic farms, yoga studios, cafes and businesses like Allow Yourself to Be, which offers services ranging from massage to “chakra balancing” and Infinite Quest, which sells “past life regression therapy.”
The BerkShares program is one of about a dozen such efforts in the nation. Local groups in California, Kansas, Michigan, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Wisconsin run similar ones. One of the oldest is Ithaca Hours, which went into circulation in 1991 in Ithaca, New York.
About $120,000 of that currency circulates in the rural town. Unlike BerkShares, Ithaca Hours cannot officially be freely converted to dollars, though some businesses buy them.
Stephen Burkle, president of the Ithaca Hours program, said the notes are a badge of local pride.
“At the beginning it was very hard to get small businesses to get on board with it,” said Burkle, who also owns a music store in Ithaca. “When Ithaca Hours first started, there wasn’t a Home Depot in town, there wasn’t a Borders, there wasn’t a Starbucks. Now that there are, it’s a mechanism for small businesses to compete with national chains.”
U.S. law prevents states from issuing their own currency but allows private groups to print paper scrip, though not coins, said Lewis Solomon, a professor of law at George Washington University, who studies local currencies.
“As long as you don’t turn out quarters and you don’t turn out something that looks like the U.S. dollar, it’s legal,” Solomon said.
The BerkShares experiment comes as the dollar is losing some of its status on international markets, with governments shifting some reserves into euros, the pound and other investments as the U.S. currency has slid in value.
But the dollar is still the currency that businesses in Great Barrington need to pay most of their bills.
“The promise of this program is for it to be a completed circle,” said Matt Rubiner, owner of Rubiner’s cheese shop and Rubi’s cafe. Some local farmers who supply him accept BerkShares, but he pays most of his bills in dollars.
“The circle isn’t quite completed yet in most cases, and someone has to take the hit,” Rubiner said, referring to the 10 percent discount. “The person who takes the hit is the merchant, it’s me.”
Meanwhile, Berkshire Hills Bancorp Inc., a western Massachusetts bank that exchanges BerkShares for dollars, is considering BerkShares-denominated checks and debit cards.
“Businesses aren’t comfortable walking around with wads of BerkShares to pay for their supplies or their advertising,” said Melissa Joyce, a branch officer with the bank, which has 25 branches, six of which exchange BerkShares. “I do hope that we’re able to develop the checking account and debit card, because it will make it easier for everyone.”