The next morning, I met Scott Wiggins, owner of La Tourelle Resort, where I was staying (Hours-friendly). Wiggins was born and raised in Ithaca, and his favorite part of the day is tending to the grounds. He described the town as brainy, with a surplus of PhDs who are overqualified for their jobs. “A lot of us,” he added, “never grew out of the ’60s.”
I went for a hike at Buttermilk Falls State Park, around the corner from the resort, then tackled the short, steep hike along the Cascadilla Creek Gorge trail, which connects downtown to Cornell. Halfway up is a small commercial area called Collegetown. I stopped by Collegetown Bagels — CTB, as the locals call it — which is part of the Ithaca Bakery family. Its outdoor picnic tables overflowed with students, while the Starbucks down the street was eerily quiet. (As Steve from GreenStar had confided, “A tried-and-true Ithacan wouldn’t be caught dead walking out of Starbucks.”)
At the CTB counter, the cashier didn’t bat an eye when I asked about paying in Hours, but she did need the assistance of a manager (wearing a No Fracking button) to process the sale. It was then that I realized what Ithacans have surely understood for years — that consuming is way more fun when your currency looks like Monopoly money.
That didn’t, however, stop me from making purchases at non-Hours-friendly establishments. I bought shoes at Fontana; a fedora at a shop called Evolution; lunch at Moosewood Restaurant (of vegetarian cookbook fame); and tomatoes at the miniature weekday farmers market. Shopkeepers who didn’t accept Hours had either not heard of the currency or had once accepted it but then found themselves with a stockpile of bills and nowhere to spend them. Businesses such as Ithaca Bakery use them to pay people like their landscapers and snowplowers, who can spend them at places such as the bakery or the farmers market.
Before leaving town, I met the Ben Bernanke of Ithaca Hours, Paul Strabel. He’s the Hours’ new board president, and I’d expected to find a hemp-wearing, tofu-eating native. Instead, I sat down for coffee with a clean-cut Long Islander who teaches at Cornell. He has a financial advising and tax preparation business in town and accepts Hours for his tax work.
Paul said that when the recession began in 2008, “Even Obama said, focus on your community. So I did.” He stepped up his Hours advocacy and is working on an electronic version of the currency, which may roll out this fall. He believes that paper currency is terribly inconvenient, and that more businesses and consumers will use Hours when they become virtual bills on a smartphone. He’s optimistic that even Cornell may accept Hours as payment one day.
I said goodbye to Paul, but leftover Hours were burning a hole in my pocket. I spent the rest at GreenStar, stocking up on groceries for home. Then I hit the road, my back seat filled with colorful locally grown vegetables, the contents of my wallet once again monochromatic.
The Impulsive Traveler: Details, Ithaca, N.Y.
Kaplan is a freelance writer in Washington. Her Web site is www.melaniedgkaplan.com.