Career Calling

January 8, 2012

Sabbath, January 8, 2012

[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature on intersections of life and work.]

Open Doors and Closed Dreams

I live in a neighborhood filled with small businesses owned by local residents.  Over the last couple of years, several businesses have shut down.  A few more have opened, but there are more open store fronts than there have been for several years.  Disappointed customers shake their head and say, “It’s the economy.”  That’s true, but, on a deeper level, every open store front is the death of dream, which is much worse than some statistic that will change from month to month.

A few years ago, I made a very bad, very large investment in advertising.  It nearly put me out of business.  For three months, I had to make some difficult choices to pay my bills and keep the lights on.  I was lucky.  Just as the contract ended, one of my customers said, “I really like the work you did for me.  I’m going to Yelp you.”  I had no idea what Yelp was, but that review and several to follow helped me turn things around.  Today my business is on solid ground, but no small business owner ever feels safe.

When I was starting my business in 2003, a café owner told me his story of opening his first shop.  He spent months fixing the space, getting permits, and hiring staff.  Then, at 7 a.m. on the day he was supposed to open, he froze.  His employee looked at him and spoke the magic words, “Open the door.”  My friend was afraid.  He faced the demons of “what if”: What if no one comes through the door?  What if they don’t like my food?  What if. . . ?  He told me that I have to live with the fear, that it’s really the hardest part of running a small business.  As I left that day, he reminded me: “Don’t forget to open the door.”

The challenge for many businesses has been keeping the door open.  With wage cuts, increased costs for health care, and high unemployment, people have less money to spend.  More people shop at places like Walmart and the Dollar Store.  They are eating more at home, making their own coffee in the morning.  When they eat out for breakfast or lunch, they pass up the local diner for a chain store that offers a “dollar” menu.  These lifestyle changes mean fewer customers for small businesses. 

Even with these challenges, small business owners are hanging on.  While I’ve seen several business close over the past few years, others – not as many – have taken their place.  In the few blocks adjacent to my office, a very successful Irish-themed bar restaurant has opened.  A comic book shop took over and remodeled a garage space.  A gallery specializing in products made of wood was recognized as the best in the city less than a year after it opened.

Small business owners are the heart of a neighborhood.  They don’t only invest their time and money in a place.  They bring their dream, something they want to share with their neighbors.  Chain stores and big stores and strip malls don’t bring the same value.  They make money.  If they close, no one really notices.  Customers looking for the best bargain just move on to the next big box store or strip mall.  A community-focused small business helps shape the character of a place.  Hopefully, more and more enterprising spirits will face the fear and share their dream with their neighbors.  Strong communities need strong small businesses.

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