A lot of us have that friend who dutifully reminds us to support local businesses, particularly around the holidays when behemoths like Amazon and Walmart are aggressively beckoning busy shoppers with the allure of speed and convenience. Lin-Manuel Miranda, in addition to being the creator of Hamilton and a pop-culture phenomenon, is also that friend.
So if you pull out your phone to buy a book on Amazon around him, don’t be surprised if the famous Broadway composer and lyricist nudges you in the direction of your local bookstore instead. “Yes, I’m the evangelist,” Miranda tells Fast Company.
I spoke with Miranda at a pop-up event in New York City last week to promote the 10th annual Small Business Saturday, the shopping holiday first launched by American Express in the wake of the financial crisis. To celebrate the occasion, Amex has temporarily transformed the ground floor of a downtown building into a retail showroom focused on the “future of shopping small,” where retailers are exhibiting interactive experiences like AR wine labels and a face scanner that guesses your favorite variety of doughnut. The idea is to show that technology—often seen as a disruptor of small businesses—can also make retail experiences more gratifying.
Miranda, as Amex’s “global ambassador,” has been using his celebrity to spread the word about small businesses for some time. He filmed a commercial spot for the brand in 2018 that features local businesses in his own neighborhood, and he recently spoke about the topic at the Fast Company Innovation Festival.
But for the 39-year-old musical theater sensation, small businesses have featured prominently in his life for as long as he can remember. As a kid, he spent parts of his summers in Puerto Rico, where his grandmother ran a travel agency, his aunt ran a school supplies shop, and his grandfather even operated a video store called Miranda Video.
“He had the local VHS shop—which for me was fucking heaven,” Miranda enthusiastically recalls. He says small businesses were “the lifeblood of my dad’s side of the family” and also played a vital role throughout his childhood in upper Manhattan, a neighborhood where he still lives today. The tiny bodegas, pizza joints, and cafes on the north end of the island offer truly unique customer experiences, he says, and a level of personalized service that can’t be replicated by the sterile likes of national chains.
As an example, Miranda cites one of the local businesses featured in the Amex commercial, the Dichter Pharmacy & Soda Shoppe in Inwood. The pharmacy’s owner, Manny Ramirez, outfitted the space with retro fixtures like a soda fountain and ice cream shop. He’s on a first-name basis with many of his customers and even lets them use the basement as a meeting room for events from book clubs to prayer services.
“Bigger than the product you sell is making yourself indispensable to the neighborhood,” Miranda says, “opening your doors in a way and becoming a home for community events.”
He bought the Drama Book Shop in Midtown Manhattan in January.
A holiday rises from the ashes of despair
Elizabeth Rutledge, Amex’s chief marketing officer, was part of the group of employees at the financial services company that originally spearheaded Small Business Saturday. She says it “sprung up internally” after the global economy collapsed in 2008 and the grim impact to local communities was being felt around the country and planet.
“Small businesses were really hurting,” Rutledge recalls. “A small group of us inside really felt strongly about it.”
The first event was held in 2010, and Amex says consumers have since spent more than $100 billion in connection with Small Business Saturdays. This year, Amex says it is making Small Business Saturday a year-round event and has teamed up with Main Street America to offer grants of $10,000 to 10 small businesses to help them “innovate in this evolving retail landscape.”
Whether or not you think a global credit card giant is the appropriate messenger to take up the cause of small business, a growing body of data suggests that Amex is on the right track. Local businesses, with their attention to individualized service, are in many ways better equipped than national chains to weather the storm of retail disruption wrought by online shopping. One 2017 survey of independent retailers from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance found that two thirds felt they’ve been able to respond to a changing retail landscape better than their larger counterparts. And, of course, the last 18 months have seen numerous retail chains—from Sears to Forever 21 to Barneys—file for bankruptcy.
Which brings us back to the elephant in this retail showroom: Amazon, which is expected to generate up to $86.5 billion in sales this holiday quarter alone. Miranda says the only antidote is being conscious of the tiny purchasing choices we make each and every day. Instead of clicking buy on that Kindle, for instance, see if you can find it in your local bookstore instead.
Then again, the guy who wrote In the Heights won’t judge you if the pull of convenience sometimes win in the end. “That’s a tension everyone faces,” Miranda says. “It would be silly to pretend otherwise. At the same time, if you can support your neighborhood—if you like it and you’re proud of it—support it! It’s that simple.”