The combined forces of a pandemic and protests have changed the way some local businesses and consumers think about commerce.

When the pandemic lockdown began, and restaurants and shops were off-limits for in-person patronage, Clintonville’s Mandy Shunnaruh made a list. She wrote down the names of all the restaurants she wanted to see stay open, and then all the local independent bookstores she wanted to support. Her job seemed safe, so the 29-year-old made the decision to spend a little more. The restaurants on her list got her money more often. Her book collection grew rapidly. 

Her decisions were driven by something deeper than brand loyalty. “I’m choosing to support local businesses owned by people of color,” she explains. “And I’ve been buying books from Charlie [Pugsley] at Bookspace Columbus because I like his politics.” 

Shunnaruh isn’t alone. With the pandemic posing an existential economic threat, some consumers are placing more emphasis on spending at businesses that align with their personal values. 

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“In a capitalistic society, every day, every transaction, we’re voting with our dollars,” says Eric Obenauf, co-owner of Two Dollar Radio Headquarters, a South Side indie bookseller, café and event space. He thinks that consumers buying from businesses that share their social and political stances is also about reclaiming a measure of control. “You can control where you spend money, but you can’t control whether everyone is going to wear masks.” 

Two Dollar Radio, a champion of sustainability and local charitable causes, received a lot of support when the lockdown began, as people bought books online, gift cards and vegan takeout. Recognizing the importance of their common values, Obenauf points customers to the “Purchase with Purpose” page on twodollarradio.com, which lists selections from authors who give their book proceeds to groups that are working on social justice initiatives. 

In early summer, the protests over the police killing of George Floyd cast an even brighter light on the significance of values-based buying. Local companies and nationwide conglomerates alike issued statements professing their commitment to protesters’ values as a way to appeal to consumers who want their dollars to make a difference, or at least for their purchases not to clash with their beliefs. 

But the protests proved especially divisive, most notably in the case of Northstar Café, which ended its police discount only to reverse the decision days later, after an outcry from some patrons. Around the same time, Twitter users began circulating a list of restaurants that had supported law enforcement in the past, which was created during the shutdown by the local Fraternal Order of Police to encourage patronage for places that were struggling financially. The list included Lavash Café in Clintonville, to the dismay of some customers who’d supported the protests. 

Lavash’s Twitter account had been dormant since 2014, but management revived it to let customers know they weren’t aware the list existed, much less that they were on it. They asked for it to be updated, to remove the café. But rather than step back from the fray afterward, Lavash has remained active on Twitter, posting in support of Black Lives Matter and about dessert deals benefiting Stonewall Columbus and the ACLU. 

It’s another sign that businesses find it increasingly important to have an ideological viewpoint or to take social stands. For some consumers, it’s an essential part of the purchase. “I like to think, ‘Where would my dollars do the most good?’” says Shunnaruh.