Michigan Bar Mints Its Own Currency

The owners of the Meanwhile Bar in Grand Rapids, Mich., have created a currency to help raise money for the bar's opening later this summer. For $10, you get $12 in Meanwhile Money. The system is entirely legal, and it isn't new: Historians say local currencies date back to the 1800s.

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It seems like Slim is practically printing his own money. Here in the U.S., legally only the U.S. Treasury can do that. In some places, though, residents can exchange their legal tender for money that can only be spent locally. It's a way to support small businesses.

Kaomi Goetz reports on a bar in Grand Rapids, Michigan whose owners have printed their own money to raise money.

KAOMI GOETZ: Jeff Vandenberg reaches into his wallet to pull out a dollar. But it's not a usual greenback.

Mr. JEFF VANDENBERG (Co-Owner, Meanwhile Bar): There's a picture of a chicken with a dozen eggs around it and it says one dozen dollars.

GOETZ: He designed the bill himself complete, with lightning bolts and a proletarian fist in the sky. It's serialized and professionally printed, and it will be accepted at a place called the Meanwhile Bar that he and his sister Tami are planning to open later this summer.

Mr. VANDENBERG: It's got, like, the all-seeing eye in the triangle but eyes closed, and there's another triangle that has an ear in it. So it's just kind of playing around with that creepy Masonic imagery that's on actual money.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GOETZ: This is how it works. The Vandenbergs are selling their Meanwhile money for $10 each. The Meanwhile bills are worth the equivalent of $12 to be cashed in after the bar opens. And if a customer wants to save the money as a keepsake, that's okay too. But it's helping them raise money to open their bar.

So far they've raised about $2,000 without much advertising. That's helped pay for an expensive liquor license and to buy second-hand bar chairs. Tami says their method of fundraising is attracting a lot of curiosity.

Ms. TAMI VANDENBERG (Co-Owner, Meanwhile Bar): The number one question everyone gives us is, is that legal? Can you print your own money? And strangely enough...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GOETZ: She says it just can't resemble Federal Reserve notes. And they're not the first. Historians say local currencies date back to the 1800s. Susan Witt is the executive director of the Schumacher Society. It helped start the BerkShares, a local currency used in the Southern Berkshire region of Massachusetts. She says local currency has helped create a closer relationship between a consumer and what they're buying. This in turn encourages the local production of goods.

Ms. SUSAN WITT (Executive Director, The E. F. Schumacher Society): They travel less. That means less fossil fuels are used in transportation, and people are more likely to know the story about the condition of the workers and the actual process of production.

GOETZ: Susan Witt says this creates a socially and ecologically responsible economy. BerkShares were introduced last year and were a hit. Right now there's about a million in circulation in a community of only 15,000 people. BerkShares is a convertible currency which is accepted by 10 local banks.

Ms. WITT: If businesses find they have too many, they can go back to the bank, put down the hundred BerkShares, and receive $90 federal dollars.

GOETZ: And the list of local currencies nationwide keeps growing, from Madison Hours in Madison, Wisconsin to Bay Bucks in Traverse City, Michigan. But Susan Witt admits local currencies can't work everywhere. She says it needs to be a place where community ties are already established. Elissa Sangalli(ph) agrees. She directs a campaign called Local First in Grand Rapids. She says local currencies are a great idea but take a lot of work to get off the ground.

Ms. ELISSA SANGALLI (Executive Director, Local First): While they can be a great economic tool, you have to get community buy-in. You have to get employers and companies to buy in to the fact that this alternative currency really is real and has value.

(Soundbite of bar)

GOETZ: Back at the Meanwhile Bar, they're getting it ready for business. Jeff Vandenberg is starting to hire staff. He even offered one of his Meanwhile Moneys to a potential bar manager.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VANDENBERG: We gave her one as an incentive to take the job. But I don't know how much of incentive it actually was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GOETZ: Vandenberg says he's not even sure they'll continue to issue the money after the bar opens. At the very least, the Vandenbergs say it's getting people talking about local currencies and creative ways to support the community.

For NPR News, I'm Kaomi Goetz.

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