One recent Saturday morning, Nick Williams navigated the packed aisles of the Glut Food Co-Op in Mount Rainier, filling his basket with organic vegetables, herbal tea, turmeric and local apple cider.
After the cashier rang up his purchases, he pulled out a funny-looking piece of paper instead of a wad of cash. The bill had environmentalist Rachel Carson’s picture where Abraham Lincoln’s ought to have been. Stripped across the top was the motto “In Each Other We Trust.”
Monopoly money? No, just a local currency system in the Mount Rainier and Hyattsville neighborhoods in Prince George’s County, where users essentially trade goods and services using money the group designed and printed called “Anacostia Hours.”
Local or alternative currencies are almost as old as trade itself, but the movement has found new life amid the global financial crisis, as parallel economies outside the traditional monetary system have emerged in countries such as Spain, Mexico and Brazil. These systems are flourishing because the unemployed can either trade skills for local currency or swap their time for other services.
Supporters of local currency in the United States say they are founding these systems here because they believe in the “buy local” movement and want to strengthen their neighborhoods and reduce reliance on large corporate banks.
“Obviously the idea of local currency has been around for a long time and historically they do pop up in times of economic uncertainty,” said Julie Gouldener, 40, program coordinator of the Baltimore Green Currency Association. “We view the complementary currency as a win-win. It’s not meant to replace the U.S. dollar. It’s meant to exist alongside it and build more local wealth.”
Gouldener’s group launched a currency called the BNote in April 2011. Locals can trade real dollars for BNotes at eight “cambios” around the city, including Zeke’s Coffee in Northeast Baltimore, and use them at 175 businesses. So far, there are about 28,000 BNotes in circulation.
“It’s going great. We’ve had steady growth since the launch,” Gouldener said.
The slick green notes are printed on currency-grade paper with the faces of prominent Baltimore figures — think Edgar Allan Poe — and each has a gold, engraved serial number. Gouldener said the association is exploring whether to partner with the Baltimore Time Bank — another bartering group in which people swap services for time credits, rather than local currency — to provide a reward or incentive in BNotes.
Ed Collom, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Southern Maine, said local currencies had their first heyday during the Great Depression, when users traded notes called scrip — essentially IOUs made of paper, wood or even clamshells — that replaced scarce federal dollars.
There are now about a dozen local currency systems around the country, including Ithaca Hours, one of the largest that was founded in New York in 1991. The idea seems to appeal to people from a wide political spectrum — from Green Party progressives campaigning against globalization to libertarians suspicious of big government.
“It’s become much more mainstream. Localization cuts across the political spectrum — Republicans and libertarians are supportive of independent small businesses, too,” Collom said.
But there are rules.
Taxes should be paid. The currency can’t look like U.S. dollars and the government frowns on anybody minting coins.Bernard von NotHaus, a free thinker, famously got into trouble in 2007 for minting millions of “Liberty Dollars” that he said was a kind of private monetary system backed by precious metal. (Some of the copper coins featured the head of former libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul, who has long advocated abolishing the Federal Reserve.) The government didn’t see it that way; von NotHaus was convicted of counterfeiting.
Collom said that currency systems are more likely to falter because organizers find it difficult to sustain momentum. Even the Ithaca Hours has seen a decline in usage, with the number of participating businesses falling from about 500 at its height to about 200 now. Its new board president, Paul Strebel, a financial adviser, said he hopes to reinvigorate the system and is exploring using virtual bills on smartphones.
Feeling like he needed to do something to help in the country’s economic downturn, District artist Larry Chang, 63, began making local money he called Potomacs in 2009, currency that eventually was accepted in places such as Qualia Coffee in Petworth. But after a good start, the movement lost steam, Chang said.
“It hasn’t caught on very well,” he said. “In D.C. it was very hard to put something across that’s alternative.”
In the neighborhoods surrounding Mount Rainier, however, the Anacostia Hours program has been a small but steady presence since it was founded in 2006. There are now 76 members, who pay $5 each in annual dues and provide everything from yardwork to pet-sitting to nutritional consulting, Williams said.
Williams, 62 and a land conservationist, said that the idea for a local currency in Mount Rainier and Hyattsville was sparked in 2006 by a Japanese American woman who has since moved to Japan. Williams began attending community meetings and potlucks with his wife and other like-minded citizens who thought that a system of local exchange would help strengthen their community.
“One of the things you notice is that transactions become a lot more personal,” Williams said. “Instead of going to some big-box store or supermarket, running through the cashier’s line, you’re having an exchange and conversation with the person you’re dealing with.”
Williams said the name “Anacostia Hours” was a tribute to the Indian term for “trading center” from the tribes that used to live along the Anacostia River. One “Hour” is equivalent to $10, and members get two Hours when they sign up and list their names and services in the directory.
When the group approached Cheryl Harrington, who opened her Shortcake Bakery in Hyattsville last year, she agreed to join. She has had 15 or so Hours transactions at her bakery since then, and in turn uses the bills at the Glut to buy ingredients.
“It’s working out well,” she said. “I think it’s a great idea, keeping money in a particular community.”