When the BNote, Baltimore’s local currency, debuted in April of 2011, only a few East Baltimore merchants were accepting the colorful, Baltimore-centric bills as legal tender.
Today, the BNote’s eastside network has grown to 15 merchants, and longtime BNote supporters, such as Su Casa, Tenpachi, and aMuse Toys, have been joined by The Creative Alliance and Latte’da, to name a few.
Local currencies have been around since at least the Great Depression, when they experienced a surge in popularity.
According to local merchants who accept BNotes, customers’ interest in the hyper-local currency is high; however, their actual use of BNotes is low, but improving.
Local currencies similar to the BNote—there are more than a dozen similar alternatives to the greenback around the U.S.—are intended to be used within a particular area, exclusively at local businesses who choose to accept them as payment.
“Local currency…helps build local wealth and support local businesses,” says Julie Gouldener, the program coordinator for the Baltimore Green Currency Association, the organization that created the BNote.
The BGCA says corporate chains, like J. Crew or 7-Eleven or Starbucks siphon off local business, while a local currency—that can only be used at area businesses—help counter that effect.
To put it another way, you can’t use a BNote at Walmart, Hon.
You can purchase BNotes at local BNote cambios (money exchanges). Ten bucks gets you 11 BNotes.
The 170 Baltimore merchants and service providers who currently accept BNotes can trade them in for cash, give them back as change to customers, or use them to pay suppliers who are part of the BNote network.
“The idea is to keep them circulating,” says Gouldener.
Tom and Claudia Towles, who own aMuse on Thames St., say they never cash out the BNotes they receive as payments.
“We love spreading the BNotes we receive around. My wife Claudia and I like to spend ours at Woodberry Kitchen and Capitol Mac… We also give them to our employees and encourage them to find new places [to spend them],” says Tom Towles.
According to proponents, local currencies not only keep money in the community, they can also help build local supply chains.
Says Gouldener: “For example, many of the restaurants in our network use Zeke’s Coffee—a BNote merchant—as a coffee supplier.”
Reggie Stiteler, manager of Latte’ Da, a coffee shop on Aliceanna St., that accepts BNotes, says he believes that Latte’ Da can pay a certain percentage of its Zeke’s bill with BNotes.
Ryan Schmidt, production manager for Zeke’s, confirmed that of the coffee producer’s 200-or-so wholesale accounts, a handful buy their coffee with
BNotes. Schmidt said that Zeke’s will accept BNotes for one payment per month from any given account.
Stiteler says that interest in the BNote is increasing.
Latte’ Da receives about five BNotes a week—but that’s double the amount the café took in when it first began accepting the alt-currency six months ago, he says.
What’s more, Stiteler says, about one out of every ten or so customers inquires about the BNote—and some ask for them as change.
Still, Stiteler feels the BNote has a way to go before people take it seriously as a currency.
“Being a locally owned café, the idea of keeping [money] in the neighborhood appeals to us. But [at this point] the BNote is more of a conversation piece than a moving currency.”
“Will that change?,” Stiteler asks. “Given the interest I’ve seen, it seems like a lot of people are interested in an alternative [to U.S. currency].”
Trish White, who owns Tenpachi, a hair salon on Eastern Ave., is one of them.
White has been accepting BNotes for a year and a half, but reports that customers pay with them only once every 60 days or so.
White, herself, however, is a fan of Baltimore’s local currency.
“I use the BNotes with other merchants— Zeke’s Coffee and Michele’s Granola at the farmers’ market and Latte’ Da cafe in Fell’s Point. It’s like getting an automatic 10-percent discount on places that accept them because of the exchange rate,” says White.
Nick Johnson, owner of Su Casa, seems more ambivalent.
Johnson has been accepting BNotes since they debuted, but says he can’t remember the last time someone used one in his store.
“When we first started accepting them, someone came in and spent 250BN. We thought it would keep up at that level, but it has tapered off,” says Johnson.
He adds that if Su Casa received more BNotes, he’d consider giving them to his employees as a sort of bonus.
“For that to happen, we’d need more bars and restaurants around here to accept them,” he says.
Page Branson, manager of Capitol Mac, the Eastside cambio, echoes Johnson’s sentiments.
“We give out far more than we get,” she says, noting that about half of those she sells are viewed as novelties.
And it’s easy to understand why.
The attractive bills are printed on currency-quality paper and depict Charm City icons. A raven, (from the Poe poem) and Edgar Allan Poe appear on opposite sides of the 5BN, while Frederick Douglass and the common oriole appear on the 1BN.
“People collect them. They make a great souvenir of Baltimore,” says Johnson.
Branson agrees. She says the only thing people don’t like about the BNotes is that they come in only ones and fives. “That’s a lot of paper to carry around,” she says
According to Gouldener, the BGCA hopes to introduce 10- and 20-BN bills, and a digital pay system, within the next year or two.
She adds that the BGCA has other big plans for Charm City.
Aside from the digital system, they are exploring partnership possibilities with local government, nonprofits, small banks, and credit unions.
Might you pay your water bill (or parking tickets!) with BNotes one day?
Possibly, says Gouldener.
“We have been planning to try to work with local government since the very beginning.”
The BGCA’s web site lists 15 Eastside merchants who accept the BNote, including 2910 on the Square, The Corduroy Button, Alpha Hair Studio, and Baltimore Cakery, as well as PopCouture, who sells at the Fell’s Point Farmers’ Market. For a complete list, visit www.baltimoregreencurrency.org
by Danielle Sweeney