Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Mom and Pop Store

Nancy said that she gave me The Mom and Pop Store: How the Unsung Heroes of the American Economy Are Surviving and Thriving, by Robert Spector mostly because she liked the title. But it turns out that I am enjoying it immensely. Here’s why.

There are different economic realities in employment in our culture. I have previously worked for institutions and corporations. I did not know what being an entrepreneur entailed when we began working at and then purchased the Episcopal Bookstore. It is really a different world of work. The Marshall family was a product of parents who worked for employers, for businesses and corporations. We did not know about the world of the entrepreneur.

The book’s author, Robert Spector, traveled around the country and took a few international trips with the purpose of finding and interviewing the owners of the mom and pop stores. His book is mostly just a retelling of dozens of their stories. Mostly all of them are in retail, or the restaurant business, which, I guess, is also retail. Bicycle shops. Corner grocery stores/delis. The local hardware store. Yes, bookstores, and many other businesses are reported in this book. (My favorite hardware store, Stone Way Hardware, is locally owned, one location, and they are thriving even more than is our bookstore. As I heard one similar hardware store owner state, “You could put our hardware store in the parking lot of Home Depot and we would still be as busy as we are now.” In my hardware store there is no reason to spend twenty minutes roaming the aisles looking for something. And, you can ask anyone of the staff questions like, “I want to do this thing. What do you have that will work?” and they will have an immediate answer and the product in your hand in less than two minutes. I love it!)

Here are some of the items of note, that I and Nancy and I “do” but I have been less aware about. People often remark that we don’t take enough vacation time. As I see it now, IMHO, vacations are mostly for people who work for others. Since one is working for someone else it is good to get away from that environment frequently. We are working for ourselves. If the work environment is stressful then we can change it. Often on my day off I have an urge to go to our store because there are things happening there that I want to be a part of. Usually Nancy and I spend most of an hour at the end of the day off for either one of us catching the “off” one up on what happened at the store. The “work” of the store is very different from work that I have performed for other employers.

Along that same line, those who have worked for employers ask us, “When are you going to retire?” I think today, that it is a question to be answered by employees, not by entrepreneurs. It’s different. By retiring we would have to give up on what we enjoy doing so much. That wouldn’t be much fun. “You could then travel a lot.” Hmm, travel requires two things, the desire to go other places and sleep in strange surroundings, and the saved money to do it. I don’t have either of those. I don’t need to retire so that I can travel and miss the joys of the events in our store each day. Yes, this is narrow-minded, from a non-traveler, but it is “where I am today.”

Remember the credit crunch where businesses could not, many still can not, obtain loans that they needed to meet payroll and many filed for bankruptcy or simply failed? We were astounded to learn that bigger business would borrow money in order to meet payroll. We told each other, “What kind of business model is that?!”

As a family we did not grow up with the entrepreneurial model. We did not know what it was like. Therefore, in my humble opinion, we all went into jobs as employees of large organizations. Robert Spector describes how many mom and pop businesses pass the business down to succeeding generations. The kids grow up working in the store and they learn about that good life. As adults they often choose to be entrepreneurs. I see this in my sister Julie’s family too. Her husband has been, well, in several employment positions, often working as an entrepreneur. Now their son, after college, has spread his wings and is trying to keep his own business, Anchor Light Productions, flying.

The author points out another element to this business scene. None of the mom and pop storeowners entered the business planning on making lots of money. They all knew that they were not in it for the money. They have instead a passion for their business. Spector also steps around those individuals who began by owning a single store location, then grew it into several stores, a chain, and became successful and rich. Mostly he avoids those individuals because their model is very different from the mom and pop storeowner.

Now that I know about the life as an entrepreneur and have lived that life I want to share it with others. But the others in the family have lived in the employee-to-a-corporation-or-institution and do not know about this different style of living with work. I don’t feel badly for them or wish them a different lifestyle, but I am very happy with my life as an entrepreneur.

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