Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Day 41- Small businesses

Dear Mr. President,

I'm not an economist. I don't know how small businesses are defined, or how they affect the economy or anything like that. I don't know what taxes hurt them or which policies help them. Today, I went to the cafe down the street from my house, which is owned by 3 sisters. They've been open for a year, but they've been making coffee in Seattle since before I was born. They love their customers, good beer, and loud music. The cafe has a bar, a ping-pong table, and video games; it's a local haunt for university kids and a friendly space for LGBTQ gatherings. It's one of my favorite places to go. One of the owners and I got into a conversation about the difference between working for yourself, as she does, and working for a large corporation, like I do. My job might be considered "safer" than hers, or at least, I have much less to lose than she does, but we agreed that her interactions with people are more genuine and more meaningful because of the sense of community created by a small business.

I know small business are important to you, and I'm grateful for that. I may not work for one, but when I shop, I always try to shop local, or to support small business, when I can. My favorite coffee shops, my grocery store, the best restaurants and bars are all small, locally-owned institutions. They are a source of pride. I'm glad you're willing to advocate for small business, to defend these last vestiges of local color in a world increasingly smeared with strip malls full of the the same corporate logos. I know you'll do your part, legislatively. I think people need to be reminded of their own responsibility, their own power as consumers. If we don't want every one in our community to work at Wal-Mart, then we shouldn't shop there just because it's more convenient than making many stops. We must sometimes be willing to forgo the cold efficiency and lower costs of the corporate model.

As the cafe owner and I were talking, she began to talk about the obstacles faced by small business owners. Her greatest concern wasn't the government, it wasn't taxes, it wasn't even corporations. It was consumers. People who would rather have the consistency of corporate coffee served by clean-cut youth in collard shirts. She may have found her niche, may have enough customers who love the informality, the out-of-this-world espresso and the smart-mouthed bar tenders, but she knows she's one of the lucky ones. It is, once again, proof that the quest for the cheapest, most convenient things in life has a hidden cost, a toll taken on all who forgo complexity and contradiction for thoughtless repetition. Thank you for advocating for small businesses, Mr. President, and I hope that you keep reminding Americans how important they are.

Respectfully yours,



  1. I'm getting behind on comments. I find the corporation/small business thing interesting to watch. Not being an business major or an economist, my observations are...well...I'm not sure how I would describe them.

    (I should note I'm not taking an opposite position to you, even if it might sound like it at first)

    The efficiencies of large corporations and the rise of the internet make the value-added part of a small business HUGE...they can NEVER match the pricing of internet or a big box retailer.

    I have found a precious few fantastic small businesses...although they are wonderful when you find them. I'll mention a few on both ends of the spectrum...

    So...dive shops. Don't get me started on dive shop politics, but there are HUGE price differences between a brick and mortar shop and the internet. But there's also a TON of bullshit in the dive industry, so the value-added service of a bullshitting local dive shop, to an informed consumer, is small. There are some fantastic dive shops out there, supposedly. I have yet to deal with one.

    hardware stores. We have two *fantastic* hardware stores in Seattle. Hardwick's and Stone Way hardware. Maple leaf hardware is also pretty good. All of them seem to employ reasonably competent people. For me the value-added service from the knowledgeable people isn't too valuable since I know what I want before I get in there, but the smaller shops carry some more specialized items you'll never find in Home Depot. I admit to frequently going to Home Depot, though, just because it's the only thing open late in the evenings.

    There's a guy in Bothell (WitchHunter performance) that runs a fuel injector cleaning service. Best reputation of any service. That's all he does and he's damn good at it. small business in North Carolina. Department store belts are crap. This guy hand makes belts from really nice leather. They are awesome.

    I *wish* I could find someone that makes some decent shoes. All the shoes I buy these days are crap. Danner still makes good boots, but I don't want to wear full-grain leather boots every day. We need to start having local cobblers again. point is...I think modern market efficiencies are changing the landscape of how small businesses (particularly retail) work. There are lot of mediocre small retailers that will probably die off. I'm not entirely sure that's a bad thing. The good ones will stick around, and they'll thrive.

    Perhaps my position is a little opposite yours...I look at consumers choosing corporations over small business and say "well I guess the small businesses aren't providing something that people want enough to make it in this market. That's the breaks". I don't think people should feel obligated to shop local just because it's local. I'm very much a capitalist like that. :-P But...I am very much in favor of good small businesses.

    It will be interesting to watch over the next 50 years as this all changes...I really have no idea how it all will end up.

  2. "I don't think people should feel obligated to shop local just because it's local" I don't feel that way either, but I also don't think people who shop at big companies appreciate the damage that they do to small ones. I think that people should shop wherever they want- but if they're buying from wal-mart than they forfeit the right to bitch about how much society has changed since "the good old days" and how little their friends/neighbors/kids/cousins get paid working for minimum wage, or how much goddamn money we owe to China. People talk all the time about how we don't have values any more, but that's because people have started to value saving a buck or saving an extra trip over how we treat one another (or how employees are treated.) People can shop wherever they want, but they should be less hypocritical about their politics if they don't put their money where their mouths are.