In Small Business, the Professional IS Personal

Elizabeth Bluemle -- May 5th, 2014

Small Business statsI’ve been thinking a lot about small business, its advantages and disadvantages, its role in community, and its role in our cultural point of view.

Many people love the personal aspects of a small local business; they like being known and recognized, they appreciate a shop understanding their likes and preferences. They also appreciate that a local shop’s owners and employees understand, support, and are part of their community. These shops see families come and go, kids grow up, move out, come back and bring in their own children. Small businesses rejoice in their customers’ successes and comfort them in times of sorrow. They ARE the community in which they swim, and there is an Our Town kind of magic in that level of participation, investment, and engagement.

On the other hand, anonymity is impossible in a small business. For one thing, the clerks know what you’re buying. Now, the truth is that we don’t care — in the negative sense —about what you’re buying. So many transactions happen during the course of the day we wouldn’t have time to be  even if we were inclined to, which we aren’t; indie booksellers are fervent advocates of free speech and the rights of reader privacy. And honestly, we won’t even remember what you bought from one visit to the next unless we’ve had a memorable conversation with you about that specific book. And sometimes not even then. But the lack of anonymity can be challenging for a shy customer.

Also, people have moods, and both customer and storekeeper can have a bad day and not hide it as well as they’d like. One bad exchange at a small business can mean the loss of a customer — and possibly that customer’s friends. With an online purchase, the impersonal nature of the transaction distances customers from the vendor. So, someone who hears a terrible thing about the business practices of or inhumane worker treatment by a giant corporation might tut-tut about the news article but continue to shop with that big business. There’s a disconnect.

Small businesses are charming (and occasionally frustrating) exactly because they rest entirely on small groups of individuals with unique quirks and foibles, expertise and passions. We’ve been lucky that our own staff turnover is very low — though high school students will  insist on graduating and going off to college, drat it — so customers have a chance to enjoy continuity in the store over years and get to know our diverse particular strengths. As in any retail establishment, customers gravitate toward the staffers whose reading tastes they best connect with, although I am so gratified to hear praise often about our whole staff. “Everyone here is so helpful!” people will tell me and Josie, and it gladdens our hearts. I actually think the best thing we have ever done as small business owners is to hire well. In small business, staff is everything.

In a very small business like ours, when one colleague is out sick, the whole ship is affected. Fortunately, the very nature of small business means that staff members quickly become family. People pitch in, take extra shifts, pick up the slack for one another. On the rare occasions a truly difficult customer comes in, we play back-up for one another; whichever of us has the most inner resources to deal with a situation steps up to bat. We also laugh and cry together, celebrate all the personal triumphs and mourn losses together. Small businesses are a microcosm of our community.

For some, the nature of corporate retail is comforting, if only in its universal predictability. Those retail spaces are slickly designed and sometimes feel restfully impersonal and disconnected from our own lives. As a customer myself, I don’t always want a conversation with a sales clerk, and we try to train our staff to respect people’s varying levels of wanting help versus wanting to be left alone. But mostly, people coming in to shop at a small business do want at least some assistance, and are so grateful when they find engaged and resourceful people on the other end.

I don’t mean to canonize small businesses; there is always room for improvement, and not everyone in retail is cut out to be working face-to-face with customers. But you can bet that anyone involved in a small business is working extremely hard, juggling about 1200 balls, and cares about every aspect of that business and its customers. The very personal nature of small business is its backbone and fiber and sinew, its humanness and vulnerability, its Herculean strength and its Achilles heel. We wouldn’t want our world to be a cookie-cutter nation. Small businesses are full of personality and punch, and I love being part of one, warts and all. Maybe especially because of the warts.

Do you have a small business in your community that you can’t imagine doing without? Feel free to share an anecdote about your favorite small store here.

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