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Money maker: Artist gives Williamsburg and Greenpoint their own form of currency

Brooklyn Daily
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Mary Jeys is carrying a torch for a time when money was spent locally.

The conceptual artist is the mastermind of a new form of borough-centric currency dubbed Brooklyn Torches, which she hopes will counter the online shopping trend and keep money flowing through North Brooklyn’s small businesses.

“It’s about how money is a mechanism not only of exchange, but of communicat­ion,” said Jeys, who coined the idea after friends convinced her it would be dangerous to hand out cash while riding around on a bicycle outfitted with an ATM for an art project. “The bill has so much meaning.”

Inspired by the Ithaca Hour, a form of local currency that’s been in use in that city since 1991, Jeys began designing Brooklyn Torches — a project that she hopes will spark discussions about trust and safety regarding money.

Americans have the greenlight to create local forms of currency to pay for goods and services, so long as the cash has a value that can be measured against the dollar and participants pay taxes the as same as they would on regular money.

For now, Brooklynites can invest in the local bucks by bringing items to Jeys’s studio, getting them appraised for Torches, and using the Torches to buy merchandise at the art space.

But the goal is to reach a much broader market.

“I’ve been talking to a bunch of businesses, and they are usually interested in having a conversation with me, since part and parcel of being an entrepreneur is being willing to try new things,” said Jeys, who hopes to enlist volunteers interested in the cause. “But we have to come up with a system.”

Some North Brooklyn merchants, such as Word bookstore owner Christine Onorati, can’t wait to sign up.

“I love the idea of a local currency,” said Onorati, who has experience with regional currency from her time in Northport, Long Island, where the Northport Dollar helped keep money in the community. “It’s a way to keep the money local and keep people aware of who’s participat­ing.”

This isn’t the first time Brooklyn has gone up against the dollar. From 1996 to 2000, about 100 businesses, many of them in Park Slope, embraced a form of currency called Greenbacks. At one point, there was nearly $100,000 worth of the currency in circulation.

That experiment in local currency was successful, but the large administrative upkeep eventually caused the founders to shut the project down, organizers said.

“It can be done with proper marketing and proper outreach. Six or seven people running it wasn’t enough,” said Craig Seeman, one of the founders of the Greenback. “She may need 10 to 15 people to do this properly. But with the internet, it’s so much easier now.”

Reach reporter Danielle Furfaro at dfurfaro@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-2511. Follow her at twitter.com/DanielleFurfaro.

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