BALTIMORE — The next time you’re shopping in the city, don’t be surprised if the cashier asks you if you’d like your change in BNotes.
More than 180 Baltimore businesses now accept BNotes, a local currency that features images of prominent figures in Baltimore history like Edgar Allen Poe and Frederick Douglass.
“We want people to think about who they’re supporting when they spend their money,” said Jeff Dicken, who chairs the Baltimore Green Currency Association, which is producing the BNotes to encourage people to patronize locally-owned businesses in the city.
“Almost anywhere people would spend money ordinarily, they can do it somewhere that accepts BNotes. We’ve got hair salons, a hardware store, restaurants, bakeries, food markets, and even a thrift store,” he said.
Though the bills account for only a tiny percentage of purchases in Baltimore, backers hope to convince more locals to use them.
Dicken said he hopes that the local currency will convince people to avoid national chains that do not accept the local currency.
Baltimore is part of a nationwide trend of cities using their own currency. There are dozens of other systems, including “Bay Bucks” in Michigan, “Ithaca Hours” in New York, and several more in the San Francisco area.
In Maryland, several cities are integrating local currency, including Potomac and Frederick.
“Anacostia Hours” began circulating in 2006 in Maryland. The currency is primarily accepted by small businesses in Mount Ranier, Brentwood, Hyattsville and Riverdale Park, said Nick Williams, president of Anacostia Hours Incorporated.
Williams said there is no data showing how exactly the currency impacts the local economy because there is no way to track their use.
“We can total up how many Hours are in circulation, but there isn’t a little bell that goes off on our computer every time an Anacostia Hour changes hands,” Williams said. “We can only rely on word of mouth reporting which of course is very anecdotal.”
In Traverse City, Michigan, a local currency known as “Bay Bucks” started circulating in 2005, said Charlie Wunsch, a member of the Bay Bucks board of directors.
Whether or not the Bay Bucks have been successful depends on who you ask, Wunsch said.
“[Bay Bucks] have been around for seven years and there are people who are not aware of them,” Wunsch said. “We’re working so that there’s more acceptance and awareness that a local currency is available.”
As the owner of a small business that accepts Bay Bucks, and a frequent user of Bay Bucks himself, Wunsch described the program as a “tremendous success.” He owns a food magazine that accepts Bay Bucks from advertisers.
“We’re using [Bay Bucks] in order to acquire goods in places that we shop at anyway,” Wunsch said. “We buy as much as we can in local products, whether its food or other things that are produced here so we can keep the money in the local community.”
The idea for the Baltimore BNote was hatched in 2010 when Dicken was introduced to the concept of local currency.
After a year of planning, the first BNote was put into circulation on April 17, 2011. At the time, only 55 businesses were signed up to accept the new form of payment, Dicken said.
There are now nearly 29,000 BNotes in circulation.
“We hear from people almost every week [about BNotes],” Dicken said. “We get responses ranging from ‘Wow, I didn’t know this was circulating. This is awesome,’ to ‘Oh, I can use it at my favorite businesses?’ We get very few people who are opposed to this.”
BNotes are slightly larger than a regular dollar bill and come in increments of one and five.
The one BNote bill features a picture of Douglass on the front with the saying “Be More Free.” A Baltimore oriole appears on the back.
Poe is shown on the front of the five BNote bill, with the quote “Be More Literary.” The back has a picture of a raven.
“I worked with the printer to find a paper that had high cotton content, so we could get it as close to U.S. currency paper as possible,” Dicken said. “If you feel [the BNotes], they’ve got a little bit of texture to them. I wanted it to be very apparent as soon as you picked it up that it was something substantial and holds value.”
The Oooh So Sweet Cakery and Cupcakery on Cathedral Street is one small business accepting BNotes.
Shaun Price, the store’s owner, said Dicken approached her last year about the Baltimore currency and she found the idea immediately appealing.
“It sounded like something I wanted to be a part of,” Price said. “I just wanted to help out as much as possible. It’s for a good reason. Keeping people spending locally within small businesses, I thought it was a great idea.”
As a small business owner herself, Price knows the value of local spending.
“If you have the BNotes, you’re most likely going to the small corner market to purchase your eggs and bacon, versus the supermarket that doesn’t accept your particular currency,” Price said.
Oooh So Sweet averages about one BNote-using customer per day, Price said, although she expects that number to go up.
Consumers looking to exchange their U.S. currency for BNotes must go to a designated “cambio,” the word chosen by Dicken for the exchange locations.
The exchange rate favors the use of BNotes: for every $10, consumers receive 11 BNotes in return.
A list of registered cambios can be found on the Baltimore Green Currency Association’s website.