by Nomi Schwartz
The signs at Sunday's festival in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, announced: "One million sold."
That's not burgers or books, but BerkShares dollar notes, a currency adopted by towns in the Berkshire Region of New York state and western Massachusetts to support locally owned businesses and services.
Sponsors of the 10-month-old economic experiment held the community festival to celebrate the success of the program, which is sponsored by the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce and the E.F. Schumacher Society. Last week, local banks selling BerkShares reached a total of $900,000 in deposits, according to Susan Witt, BerkShares' administrator and the executive director of the Schumacher Society. Since notes are sold to consumers at participating banks for 90 cents each, the milestone indicates that one million BerkShares have been sold.
Witt told the Berkshire Eagle that Berkshares are accepted by more than 225 businesses in South Berkshire, and adjacent communities are expressing interest in adopting them. Lawyers, artists, schools, oil companies, healthcare practitioners, as well as many retailers accept BerkShares, which are available in several denominations.
Eric Wilska of The Book Loft in Great Barrington is a participating retailer in the BerkShares program. He told BTW that many, but not all, local businesses accept the notes, which are available in five denominations.
"We were all approached to join the program," Wilska said. Since the notes sell for 90 cents and are valued at a dollar, he noted, "Consumers save 10 percent on everything they purchase with them, and the money stays within the community. But not everyone wants to accept them."
Do businesses lose 10 percent on every transaction? Not necessarily, Wilska explained. "BerkShares are cash transactions," he noted. "So we don't pay any credit card fees or offer senior discounts. That saves us money. Ideally, [participating retailers] can then use the notes to pay for other things and no one loses anything." As long as the BerkShares stay in circulation, they keep full dollar value; however, when merchants redeem the notes at participating banks, they receive 90 cents on the BerkShare.
Wilska said he often transacts business in BerkShares -- for advertising space in the local Women's Times, at restaurants, a quick printer, and a natural food store. Marketing efforts by the BerkShares program can bring attention to the participants and bring in new customers, he said, and plans are in the works for a BerkShares debit card and for increased program visibility and participation.
"The program is small but definitely growing," Wilska told BTW. "Our store did about $20,000 in BerkShares sales this year. That's something."