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Etsy Chicago: Is It a Local Business?

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 Photo: The Argaman & Defiance Studio, Courtesy of Argaman & Defiance
Photo: The Argaman & Defiance Studio, Courtesy of Argaman & Defiance

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We shop Etsy for many of the same reasons we shop at local boutiques: to find something unique, to invest in artisanal products, and for the Mother Theresa-like thrill we get when we choose small businesses over mega-stores. But that organic bath soap is from Portland, and that hand-dyed table runner came all the way from Montreal. When we shop Etsy, we're supporting someone's local infrastructure, sure—but it's not necessarily ours.

So what if the seller is from Chicago? Do Etsy sellers who live in the city qualify as "local businesses," or does the intangibility of the internet place them somewhere more, well, cerebral? We talked to a number of Etsy sellers who live in Chicago but peddle many or all of their wares online, to find out exactly how much of their Etsy life takes place right here. Can we claim them as our own? Here's what we found:

Chicago's Etsy sellers live, work, and (sometimes) source here
They may not have brick-and-mortar stores, but there's still meaning in location for these Etsy sellers. "I do all of my dyeing on a screened-in porch in the back of my [Ukrainian Village] apartment," says Lydia Crespo of Argaman & Defiance. Jeweler Rachel Stoltz of Anatomical Element opens up her West Lakeview studio for "design consultations of custom pieces," while Vanessa Uttaro of The Big City Bumpkin uses Chicago, quite literally, in her design process, taking "shells and rocks from Lake Michigan, sticks off the sidewalk, plants and flowers, photos taken around the city, and pieces purchased from local shops." Of course, not everyone can source materials locally—often, it's much cheaper to purchase them online.

But they don't necessarily sell here
Many artisans who sell on Etsy also make a significant portion of their income from local markets and craft fairs, but it's hard to categorize their Etsy presence as "local," since their customers are so diverse. For example, Nancy McCabe from Design Ahoy has been shipping her maps all the way to "Portugal, Switzerland, Iceland, Australia and Saudi Arabia." Interestingly enough, Chicago-themed wares often attract an international audience that's familiar with the city, which feels like a version of tourism. Photographer Rebecca Plotnick sold a set of Chicago-themed woodblocks to a homesick Chicagoan in Germany, and collage-maker Kelly Wojczak sent a re-imagining of the Chicago skyline to a customer in Italy. But when it comes to local economies, there's a key difference between Etsy purchases and those made in local boutiques.

At a brick-and-mortar boutique, the majority of purchases will be made by either locals or tourists, who will then have multiple opportunities to make additional purchases, if not in the neighborhood, at least in the city, simply because they'll be passing by other stores. (Or because they're specifically touring the neighborhood; for example, a visitor who stops by Unabridged Books in Lakeview would be crazy not to drop four bucks on a latte at Intelligentsia.) Not so on Etsy, where a purchase from Chicago has no locational correlation to the next financial transaction the consumer makes.

There's not really a physical manifestation of the Etsy community
Brick-and-mortar businesses can rub their successes off on each other, especially in gentrifying neighborhoods. Just look at Pilsen, where Dusek's, the new Modern Cooperative, and Belli's Market all opened up within weeks (and inches) of each other. That's one of the benefits of local shopping—it can snowball. One minute you're buying a Chicago-made sweater, the next minute you've got a specialty coffee shop opening on the corner.

Although Etsy encourages community by allowing sellers to join groups and make online events, there's not that "neighborhood snowball" effect, if you will, no matter how successful the Etsy shop. Even the Chicago-based Etsy groups function as a resource for the sellers rather than as an online marketplace for the buyers. In fact, you'd have to make a conscientious effort to buy only from Chicago Etsy stores, and there's not much of an incentive for that kind of shopping online. When you're tossing things into your virtual shopping cart, location is completely removed from the equation.

However, their income returns to the community in a major way
When we nosily asked what percentage of the sellers' Etsy income returned to their local Chicago neighborhoods, they told us that 10% to as much as 50% of their profits are poured back in the form of studio rent, art classes, locally sourced supplies, and purchases from other Chicago artisans, indie thrift stores, or local restaurants. Without fail, every seller was passionate about supporting local business.

"I use some of my profits to join my neighborhood association, and that money in turn goes into beautifying my neighborhood. My studio's here, the shop where I sell is here—I want to be part of this neighborhood," says Crespo. Etsy sellers also support other businesses; for example, McCabe gets some of her maps printed at Rohner Letterpress in Humbolt Park. It's a symbiotic relationship, supplier-creator-consumer, which many feel characterizes Chicago; after all, our second city status also means that our art tends to be easier, more accessible, and a little bit more low key. "People here want local art," says Janeane Bowlware of Redbud Jewelry. "They want to shake hands with the person whose painting they're buying."

So are Chicago-based Etsy sellers a local business? Not explicitly, but we definitely want them to stick around. Thriving Etsy stores run by Chicago artists function, well, like e-tourism: we get to benefit from their local contributions while people in other cities do most of the shopping. The homesick woman in Germany purchases the photo, but the art studios in Lincoln Park see (some of) the benefits. It's like having a horde of tourists steadily supporting your community without leaving a single footprint. And the second we want to shop our Etsy sellers, they're only a click—or an El ride—away. —Tori Telfer
· Argaman and Defiance [Official Site]
· Anatomical Element [Etsy]
· The Big City Bumpkin [Etsy]
· Redbud Jewelry [Official Site]