I believe that small businesses constitute the backbone of urban community life.
It’s not as if I ever required coaching regarding the significance of small business proprietors; my dad—my hero—owned a men’s shop that supported our family for many years. And I cannot recall him ever complaining about the long hours, the six-day work week, or the lack of vacation. On the contrary, in comparison to searching for employment as a young man during the Depression, he considered his life as a shopkeeper a walk in the park. But my dad’s store was in the suburbs, where shopping malls were replacing shopping streets, and it closed in the 1970s.
Ironically, it was not until I moved to a big city that I again found the type of small-town feeling and service offered by the merchants of my youth—service that went way beyond free delivery. In my New York City neighborhood, there’s the greengrocer who sends drinks to your table when he spots you in a local restaurant, and lends you money for your errands when you’ve forgotten your wallet (or forgotten how much it costs to pick up a few things these days!). There’s the coffee store owner who knows my kids and the sports they play and has followed their progress through college and first jobs. There’s the fresh fish merchant, who organizes an annual softball game among his fellow shopkeepers to benefit a local charity. There’s the jeweler who is genuinely let down if you neglect to stop by every Christmas for a glass of brandy and a cookie.
And then there was the dry cleaning shop—a veritable mom and pop operation run by a husband and wife team of Korean immigrants. With your neatly pressed slacks and crisply starched shirts, this couple delivered lessons, by example, on how to be a better human being. Their generosity and devotion to the community is the stuff of neighborhood legend, and when they retired, we threw a huge party for them, attended by the Borough President, the District Attorney, City Council members, and a variety of religious leaders.
Malls may work in the car culture of the suburbs, but it is small shops that help hold an urban community together. We meet at these stores after picking children up from school or after work, catch up with neighborhood news, continue our conversations out on the sidewalks, and make plans to get together for a kids’ play date or a cup of tea. This, after the greengrocer brings something from the back to make our dinner salads more interesting, or the fish store manager hands us an appealing recipe for fillet of sole. Yes, the big box and chain store phenomenon has threatened our urban take on Norman Rockwell. Indeed, we worried over our independent book store after a big chain moved in three blocks away. But a decade later our little book shop around the corner continues to thrive. In fact, it just opened a brand-new annex!