“There is no one who is not in some degree a merchant; who has not something to buy or something to sell,” wrote Samuel Johnson in the late 18th Century.
All of us are involved in trade, whether we’re selling appliances, electronics, or ideas. And we all have the same goal: Getting the customer to say “Yes.”
It’s all so basic and simple, but it’s the getting there that’s the challenging part.
No people on earth understand this concept better than the men and women who run small, independent retail businesses, i.e. Mom & Pop stores. They have much to teach us.
Ten years ago, after writing books on Nordstrom, Amazon.com, and big box stores, I turned my attention to independent traders in “The Mom & Pop Store.”
This project was a labor of love because I am the product of a mom and pop store. My parents had a butcher shop in a farmers’ market in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, where, over four decades, a dozen of my family members worked. Although I didn’t go into the family business, the experience of working in the shop formed the person I became.
I traveled all over the U.S. to interview men and women who own furniture stores, home-decor stores, hardware stores, florists, butcher shops, fruit stands, barber shops, bakeries, coffee shops, restaurants, groceries, delis, pharmacies, lumberyards, jewelry stores, and bookstores.
They taught me many things, particularly that despite geographical, regional, racial, ethnic, political, and sexual differences, we all share a desire for a uniqueness of place that says, “This is where I live, and this is why it’s special.”
Mom & pop stores are important, not only for the appliances, food, drink, clothing, and tools that they sell us, but also for providing us with intellectual stimulation, social interaction, and connection to our communities.
We must have mom & pop stores because we are social animals who are drawn to the market, the agora, the heart of town. We will always have mom & pop stores because we will always need them. Mom & pop stores have endured every new retail concept that’s been thrown at them: department stores, chain stores, discount stores, mail-order catalogs, and the Internet. That’s why, after the apocalypse, the only survivors will be cockroaches and mom & pop stores.
The men and women who run these enterprises are heroes and heroines; they are authentic entrepreneurs who create, organize, operate, and assume the risk for their business ventures. That’s why in order to run a mom & pop business you have to be a Jack-of-all-trades (or a Jill)—financier, buyer, merchandiser, bookkeeper, bill collector, adviser, referee, good neighbor, and community pillar.
The entrepreneurs in my book share seven qualities: (1) a desire for independence, (2) a distinctive entrepreneurial belief that what they are doing is special, (3) passion, (4) persistence, (5) a willingness to work hard and to do what ever it takes to get the job done, (6) a connection to their community, and (7) an ability to adapt to change, which is probably the most important.
They prove every day that anything is possible if you work at it, and work at it, and work at it some more. It’s not that they’ve simply figured out a way to make it work. It’s that they continue to figure out how to make it work as conditions change— how to survive and thrive. That’s the wisdom of mom & pop.