Keep Austin Weird
In our home of Austin, TX, there’s a saying that might as well be the unofficial motto of the city - Keep Austin Weird. The slogan serves as a rallying cry for a town in the midst of a stretch of incredible growth and transformation. Once a sleepy haven for hippies and musicians, Austin has been booming in recent years due largely to its role as a technology hub.
Since 1990 the population of the metro area has more than doubled, from 800,000 to 1.8 million, and the slowdown is nowhere in sight. As the city continues to grow, Austin is caught in an identity crisis, torn between its economically rosy future and its free-and-easy past.
It was out of this dilemma that the Keep Austin Weird movement arose. Although its origins are murky, the message is clear - growth does not have to mean losing the city’s soul. Whether you’ve lived in Austin for five months or five decades, support the culture that has made it such a unique place to live.
There’s another element to Keep Austin Weird that has probably had a bigger impact than all the tattoos and tie-dye shirts. Inherent in the slogan’s message is a call to support local businesses over national chains. This famously came to a head in 2002 when the bookstore chain Borders announced plans to open a location on the same block as Austin’s largest independent bookstore and its largest independent record store.
If this had happened in any other city, it may as well have been a death sentence for the two indie stores. The owners of Book People and Waterloo Records, however, rallied behind the Keep Austin Weird slogan and garnered so much support that Borders had to abandon their plans to open a store in downtown Austin altogether.
To this day, Book People and Waterloo Records continue to flourish while the Borders chain is no more. If it hadn’t been for Austin’s pride in its homegrown institutions, that downtown block would probably be an empty shell with a For Sale sign rather than a showcase of independent businesses.
The victory of local businesses over national chains goes far beyond feel-good stories and back patting. It’s about dollars and cents. Studies have shown that a dollar spent locally generates far more economic activity for the community than a dollar spent at a chain, as much as three times more.
When you buy a latte at Starbucks or a book at Barnes and Noble, 80% of that money leaves the community immediately. Buy at a local store, however, and that money will be put back into the community again and again. In Austin the success of local businesses is almost staggering. Just this year Austin was named the Best City For Small Businesses in America as it continued to add local businesses at a time when 97% of U.S. metros lost them.
It’s numbers like these that suggest that maybe Austin is growing because of its unique culture, not despite it. Perhaps residents’ efforts to Keep Austin Weird can serve as a blueprint for other cities looking to boost their local economies, and gain back some of their cultural landscape in the process.