Why do the Berkshires have their own currency?

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These Western Massachusetts communities wanted a way to promote local businesses. So they started printing their own money.

BerkShares feature notable Western Massachusetts figures, from Norman Rockwell to W. E. B. Du Bois. Schumacher Center for a New Economics/Handout, via The Boston Globe

The great BerkShares experiment officially began nearly two decades ago, when communities in Western Massachusetts wanted a way to promote local businesses and keep money circulating closer to home.

So they did what many folks have dreamed of doing, particularly in times of hardship: They started printing their own money. 

A fixture in the Berkshires since 2006, BerkShares are a form of local currency spendable at hundreds of businesses throughout the region, including a few in New York and Connecticut. They come in ones, fives, 10s, 20s, and 50s, and the bills — which feature local icons such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Norman Rockwell — can be put toward a sandwich at the cafe down the street, or even a visit to the chiropractor. 

And before you ask: Yes, this is all totally legal. 

“It’s a question that comes up a lot,” said Jared Spears, director of communications and resources for the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, which launched the BerkShares program.

“Basically, federal law doesn’t prohibit the issuance of local currency,” he explained. “Actually, if you kind of look back to the 1800s and even during the Great Depression, there were a lot of communities and regions in the United States that issued currency.”

There are, of course, a few caveats: U.S. law allows private groups to print paper currency, but not coins, Reuters reported in 2007.

“As long as you don’t turn out quarters and you don’t turn out something that looks like the U.S. dollar, it’s legal,” George Washington University law professor Lewis Solomon told Reuters at the time. 

BerkShares remain paper-based for now, though the nonprofit successfully beta tested a digital platform akin to Venmo back in 2022.

From Deli Dollars to BerkShares

According to Spears, an early precursor to BerkShares came in the 1980s with a community currency that was backed by cordwood, rather than the U.S. dollar. 

Other experimental currencies followed, many of them designed to last only for a certain period of time. For example, Great Barrington deli owner Frank Tortoriello once used “Deli Dollars” to raise funds to move his business from one location to another — customers paid $8 up front and got a $10 voucher to use once the deli relocated, The Berkshire Edge explained in 2021.  

“You can sort of imagine how over a generation of this kind of experimentation going on in your backyard, you sort of develop a different, I guess, attitude toward the idea of locally issued currency and an acceptance of that concept,” Spears said.

Seizing upon that concept, BerkShares made their debut in 2006.

BerkShares in use at one of several hundred participating businesses in Western Massachusetts. – Jason Houston/Courtesy Photo via Schumacher Center for a New Economics

How do BerkShares work? 

There are more than 140,000 BerkShares in circulation at this point, all backed by reserves in local banks, according to Spears.

Consumers can exchange U.S. dollars for BerkShares at a one-to-one rate by visiting one of several participating bank branches in Western Mass. Beyond that, the bills function similar to regular cash: 10 BerkShares can be put toward a $10 purchase, and the money stays in the local economy rather than going toward a big box store like Walmart or Target. 

According to Spears, the whole idea is to keep the money circulating within the community, “sort of creating that momentum that encourages participating businesses to then look around and think about where they can sort of redirect money that they might be spending that’s going out of the region for things that they procure or services that they use, and then looking to ways that they can sort of fill those needs locally.”

Back in 2019, the Schumacher Center estimated that more than 10 million BerkShares have circulated throughout the local economy since 2006. 

‘Little things add up’

There are, of course, some limitations. 

As The Boston Globe noted in 2020, it can be tricky for businesses to make change without coins. Users also face a 1.5% fee when they cash out and convert BerkShares back into U.S. dollars — an added incentive to keep the money circulating locally, according to Spears. 

On the flip side, business owners don’t face credit card fees when they accept payment in BerkShares. And as Berkshire Mountain Bakery Director of Operations Dennis Iodice noted, the 1.5% exchange fee for BerkShares is a smaller cut than many credit card processing fees, which typically range between 1.5% to 3.5%

“Credit card processing fees do not stay in our community,” he pointed out in an email interview.

Iodice — who also serves on the BerkShares board of directors — said the bakery accepts BerkShares from customers almost daily and uses them at other local businesses whenever possible. 

“Little things add up and using BerkShares is not an insignificant way of supporting your community,” he said. 

The result, according to Spears, is an emphasis on building more resilient, locally based supply chains. 

“BerkShares becomes a conscious tool, and it’s kind of like a ‘vote with your wallet’ type of idea where yes, of course, as an individual you can support a local business with U.S. dollars; you don’t necessarily have to use BerkShares,” Spears said. “But then, by using BerkShares, you’re sort of acknowledging that that business is a local business.”

He added: “It’s a more community-minded way to pay.”

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