After a hurricane or earthquake or terrorist attack, the first tentative sign of a return to normalcy is the reopening of the neighborhood shops and markets. When Mom & Pop merchants demonstrate their hopefulness for the future, they are signaling the rest of us to begin to rebuild our routine.
Regardless of what side you take in the debate over when to reopen small businesses, who among us doesn’t yearn to return to our favorite coffee shop, restaurant or watering hole to order our “usual” – the drink or meal that reveals a bit of who we are to the person on the other side of the counter or bar? To me, that’s hardly a “nonessential” service.
In my 2009 book “The Mom & Pop Store: True Stories from the Heart of America,” I profiled almost 50 independent shops – from a drugstore in Manhattan and a bookstore in Bellingham, Washington to a German bakery in Chicago and an African American soul food restaurant in Memphis. I also included Spector’s Meat Market, my family’s butcher shop in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, where I worked every Saturday of my teenage years, beginning the week after my bar mitzvah in 1960.
These businesses define and connect our communities. Jane Jacobs, who wrote about my old Greenwich Village neighborhood in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” pointed out, “It’s not the chain stores that provide the characters on the streets of a neighborhood; it’s the small businesses that do that.”
New Orleans is the home of two of the businesses profiled in my book. Six weeks after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, Tom Lowenburg and his wife Judith Lafite re-opened Octavia Books. “We did it because we thought that a bookstore is not just a Mom & Pop business,” said Tom. “A bookstore is a special kind of business, where people meet and exchange ideas. It’s a place where people can get inspired to do things. It’s a building block for building the city back.”
Vincent’s Italian Cuisine is a classic neighborhood restaurant in the Uptown section of New Orleans. Four weeks after Katrina, co-owner Tony Imbraguglio and his crew reopened Vincent’s even though it had a couple of big holes in its roof (which they temporarily covered with tarp). Once they got Vincent’s in reasonable shape, they put up a two-by-four plywood sign that proclaimed: “VINCENT’S IS OPEN.”
A Mom & Pop store always represents hope – the hope of the proprietor and the hope of the community.
Imbraguglio told me, “People were coming down the street, honking their horns, giving us the thumbs-up sign, and saying thank you. It was every single car. It was like a parade.” For a while, the staff at Vincent’s had to use paper plates and plastic knives, forks, and spoons because they couldn’t wash dishes with contaminated water. Every morning, they had to fill up buckets of water or buy containers of water. All the pasta was boiled in that water, which was a two-hour chore.
“The first few nights we had candles on the wall,” Tony fondly recalled. “People just love that memory. The simplicity of it just made everyone feel good. People were very emotional. They would cry. They would say, ‘Thank you’. This is our sanity. This is our sanctuary. This shows us that there’s hope in the city of New Orleans.’”
Rick Danko, the late, great bass player and singer of The Band, once said, “When we were younger, we always wanted to change the world, or thought we could. Now, I think we’re smart enough to know that we’re just here to help the neighborhood.”
How do we help the neighborhood? As we slowly, inevitably emerge from our current crisis, let’s remember to give as much of our dollars as we can to support our local independent businesses because they need us today more than ever. And we need them just as much. A Mom & Pop store always represents hope – the hope of the proprietor and the hope of the community.