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In the Berkshires, a bold experiment with local currency goes digital

Leah Barber, a volunteer member of the BerkShares board, shows off the local currency in its paper form.
Yasmin Amer
Leah Barber, a volunteer member of the BerkShares board, shows off the local currency in its paper form.

At The Magic Fluke in Sheffield, rows of wooden string instruments line the wall: ukuleles, violins, and a triangular instrument called the fluke.

“The look is different, the sound is a little different,” said Dale Webb, who designed the fluke. “It’s got a richer, fuller sound.”

Dale and Phyllis Webb co-own this shop, where a basic instrument runs about $250. Since most customers don’t carry that much cash, most opt to use their credit cards. That comes with a fee for the business.

“If somebody spends money at our store mostly with credit cards, I’m paying anywhere from 2.7% to 3%,” Phyllis said.

A sign hanging by the instruments inside the shop reminds customers there is another way to pay: a local currency called BerkShares. It can help business owners like the Webbs avoid the fees that accompany credit card transactions.

“Those dollars through Visa, MasterCard, Discover, do nothing for our community,” Phyllis said. “They just whisk away into the atmosphere to some other place that couldn’t care less about the Berkshires.”

To keep more money in the region, the Webbs and hundreds of other business owners have joined this experiment in local currency. People in the Berkshires can exchange U.S. dollars for BerkShares, for free, at any of nine participating bank branches. The exchange rate is one dollar for one BerkShare.

As of March, it’s also possible to transfer funds from almost any bank straight into the BerkShares app, which acts like a digital wallet. There is one catch: Transfers can take up to six business days.

When a customer uses digital or paper BerkShares instead of a credit card, business owners don’t pay any transaction fees. There’s also an incentive to keep BerkShares circulating in the local economy instead of converting them back to dollars. Converting from BerkShares to USD involves a 1.5% fee, which is about half of a typical credit card fee.

Members of the Schumacher Center for New Economics, a nonprofit in Great Barrington, came up with the idea for a Berkshires currency more than 15 years ago. Since then, more than 350 businesses have signed on to accept paper BerkShares, and about 70 also are using the new digital version.

Part of Jared Spears’ job at the Schumacher Center is to expand that number.

“The circulation of Berkshires since 2006 has kept over $10 million in local circulation,” Spears said. “[That] represents money that didn’t leak out of the designated economic area.” 

The goal of a local currency like BerkShares comes from a basic economic idea: When more money stays in a community, it increases revenue for local businesses over time, and allows those businesses to grow.

Leah Barber, a volunteer board member with the BerkShares program, likes the convenience of using the new digital BerkShares app. However, she still keeps a wad of the blue and green bills in her purse. They feature local heroes like W. E. B. Du Bois and Norman Rockwell. For her, they represent the region’s identity — and a commitment to spend local.

“If I whip out my BerkShares, it makes you think, ‘Oh, maybe I should be paying in BerkShares too,’ Barber said. “Being present with each other is a big part of it.”

Hayley Ranolde, a customer service manager at the Berkshire Food Co-op in Great Barrrington, said she typically sees no more than a handful of people paying with digital BerkShares each day. The co-op is one of the early adopters of the new digital currency.

For those transactions, Ranolde uses a cell phone with the BerkShares app since the cash registers don’t accept that type of currency.

“It hasn’t necessarily been easier for us, but it does support our mission at the co-op to support local entrepreneurs and keep the money in the community,” Ranolde said.

If more people used BerkShares, especially local vendors, Ranolde said it would be a game changer. The store would be able to keep more BerkShares circulating without having to convert them back into dollars.

Though BerkShares have been around for more than a decade, the currency hasn’t achieved widespread adoption. Lisa Hope, who commutes to the Berkshires from New York every day for work, said she’s never considered using it.

“Just my idea of what it is, is not something that interests me I guess,” she said.

BerkShares advocates have high hopes the new digital currency will reach more people like Hope, by providing an easy way to pay in an increasingly cashless society.

“I think that the digital way is the way of the world,” said Phyllis Webb. “We’re excited to be part of of a first opportunity to see how this works with a local currency.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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