My son's cockatiel eats like a bird, so our stock of millet and black-oil sunflower seeds rarely needs replenishing. On most days, consequently, I have no credible excuse to stop by Feathers, a purveyor of avian supplies in Marlborough, Mass. That makes me ... not sad, exactly, but a little wistful. Several times a week I drive by the pocket-sized shop on my way to Star Market or Home Depot, the indispensable but soulless establishments that keep my household up and running. When I do have occasion to stop at Feathers, though, it's like old home week at the Audubon Society. Twenty or so birds -- some for sale, others familiar store pets -- chirrup, preen, and crack seed from cages and perches scattered around the store. I stretch out my finger and a brazen parakeet sidles onto it, inclining its head so I can gently stroke its chalk blue ruff, so downy tender that it feels almost moist. The faces have changed over the years but at one time or another have included Zinger, a white cockatoo with the flounces of a Vegas showgirl, and One-Eye, a sun conure who -- although partly blind and addled as a result of chickhood trauma -- displayed the pluck and resilience of a Dickens heroine. We didn't move to our neighborhood because it has a store like Feathers in it. But if we ever leave, I will miss it.
Wal-Mart may have trounced Main Street in the battle for consumers' dollars, but in the battle for their hearts and minds it's not even a contender. The best small companies can be charming, idiosyncratic, even lovable. They offer can't-find-it-elsewhere goods (possibly), warm personal service (probably), and something else -- the imprint of distinct human lives on brick and wood and formica. Sometimes they embody the spirit of a neighborhood or of an era. Sometimes they are the source of all earthly knowledge on a given subject. Sometimes they are your friends.
In an effort to celebrate America's unsung small companies, Inc asked a number of well-known writers, entertainers, and others to tell us about their favorite businesses. Their reflections -- some of them surprisingly intimate -- remind us that companies can be great in many ways. The greatest are those that touch their customers' lives.
Former CEO of General Electric. His memoir is Jack: Straight From the Gut.
Mitchells of Westport, a clothier in Connecticut, has incredible customer service. The store has been around since 1958. It's a second-generation family business owned by two brothers, and their sons are also in the business. Their entire staff -- from sales associates to tailors to delivery people -- are the best. If a customer calls after hours -- say, someone has forgotten to pick up something they need that evening or for a trip -- the phone rings in one of the owners' homes, and they will go to the store, collect the item, and hand-deliver it, sometimes as far as Logan Airport in Boston. Once I forgot my topcoat, and Bill Mitchell met me at the airport with his own topcoat, which was my size. Their sales associates know everything about the customers -- not just what size they wear but also the names of their kids and what business they're in. They serve bagels and sandwiches and wine; there are television sets for customers waiting for alterations and a big area where they entertain children. They do whatever it takes to make the customer happy. I really admire them.
Writer, actor, and game-show host. The series Win Ben Stein's Money appears on Comedy Central.
My favorite small business is the Watergate Barber Shop, located in the building made famous by the Watergate scandal, in Washington, D.C. I own a co-op in the complex that I inherited from my parents. My father got his hair cut at the barbershop for 27 years, more or less. The barbers are Italian Americans with no pretensions, no fancy-pantsy "hair styling" jive, no high prices, just astonishing skill with shears. They cut my hair in about 12 minutes (I time it) with unerring precision, never nick the mole I have in the center of my still bushy scalp, always make sure to hand me the latest newspapers to skim, and then charge me all of $18, which is what I would pay to park if I got my hair cut in high-end places in Beverly Hills or Malibu, where I also have homes.
My father used to discuss the Redskins at length with the barbers there and called one of them "Coach." Now I wait until I am in D.C. to get my hair cut, and the barbers always say how much they miss my pop. I cry as my hair comes off, and the manager says, "You know, he called me Coach" for the 20th time, and I don't want him to ever stop reminding me of that story, and I don't want anyone else to ever cut my hair.
Bob Dole gets his hair cut there and so do various officials of the Saudi Embassy. One day I was in a great hurry, and a young, well-dressed man of Arab descent allowed me to take his place in the chair. I later learned the man was the ambassador of Oman, an oil-producing sultanate on the Arabian peninsula.
At the Watergate Barber Shop, everyone gets along because we are all so happy about how we are going to look after they cut our hair. Or maybe it's just the natural camaraderie of the tonsorial parlor. In any event, I love it.
Cartoonist, business satirist, and creator of Dilbert. His most recent book is Another Day in Cubicle Paradise.
When you work at home and you live at home, you need some other place to be. If it's not Starbucks, for me it's ClubSport, in Pleasanton, Calif.
I started going to health clubs when I moved to California, in 1979. I had always exercised, but once it gets above 80 degrees, I don't go outdoors. I get a sunburn standing next to a 60-watt bulb. So I needed a roof. I tried several health clubs and found ClubSport about 10 years ago. Now I go four or five times a week to play tennis or do weights or torture myself on some kind of aerobics machine.
What I think is so impressive about ClubSport is that they really know their customers. They know we don't consider exercise to be optional, so the facility opens at 5 a.m. on weekdays and is closed only on Christmas and New Year's. And they understand how boring exercise can be, so they have an obsession with variety. There's always something new to push or pull or run on. They put in a rock-climbing wall, and they offer a spinning class and some form of fake Tae-Bo, since they can't use the copyrighted word. Every time you turn around there's a new sign: This coming! Learn how to fly!
The staff is always smiling and friendly and intelligent and helpful. Everything about the place is right, from the layout to the carpets to the colors to the number of windows. There are smart people pushing the buttons.
Journalist and author. His books include The Perfect Storm and Fire.
Provincetown, Mass., used to be a fishing port. Although some fishing boats still work out of there, it's overwhelmingly a tourist town now. But in the middle of the B&Bs and restaurants and cafés, tucked into an old building on the waterfront that's been completely commercialized, is Flyer's Boat Yard. Flyer's has a railway that pulls boats out of the water for repairs. There's tackle and tools and old busted-up boats lying all over the place. Walking in there is like walking into the 19th century.
I first noticed Flyer's when I was about 20 years old. I was in Provincetown looking for a job. I was walking down the street and thought, "Oh, maybe I'll work in a boatyard." So I walked down a little dirt alley to the waterfront and tried to get a job there. I couldn't. But just last year I needed help putting in a mooring for my boat, so I had occasion to go back. Flyer must be in his eighties now, and he's still around.
I don't know Flyer that well, and I haven't done much business up there. But I love that place because it's a holdout against the bulldozer of commercialism that's changed Provincetown and so many other beautiful coastal towns.
Founder and CEO of Dell Computer Corp.
There's a great little company in Austin called RunTex. It's owned by Paul Carrozza, the local running maven. He's got several stores that sell shoes, clothes -- all the stuff runners need. It's a real family business. You go to the stores and his wife is there. His kids are there. Carrozza loves running. And he loves to help people run. At RunTex it's not like, "Let me sell you these shoes." It's, "Let's talk about your feet." But it goes beyond that. Carrozza sponsors just about every road race in the city. He's incredibly community-minded -- a philanthropist. He's just so giving of his time.
Movie director and actor. His films include Clerks, Dogma, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.
I own a comic-book store called Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash, in Red Bank, N.J. But it isn't just a comic-book store. If you're a fan of any of the five movies we've made, it's a destination resort. Of course, first and foremost, we sell comics, graphic novels, and trade paperbacks from all the labels, major and indie. We also sell toys, statues, posters, and other comic-book-related merchandise. Where we deviate from the standard comic-book store is in our blatant and almost vulgar self-promotion of tchotchkes from the flicks we've made. Looking for a signed Clerks poster? Buy it at the Stash. Must have the T-shirt that Jason Lee wore in Mallrats? We sell it. In desperate need of a miniature replica of the Buddy Christ statue from Dogma? You'll find it there. Can't live without Jay and Silent Bob action figures? We can fix your jones.
But what makes the store really special (at least for me) is that it's stacked, floor to ceiling, with props from the movies. Even if you don't want to buy anything at the Stash (shudder the thought), you can just come in and treat the place like a View Askew [Smith's production company] museum. There's the BluntMobile from Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, complete with life-size dummies of me and Jason Mewes driving. There's the grappling gun from Mallrats, the Poop Monster and the Mooby the Golden Calf statue from Dogma, and the original artwork and selected pieces of wardrobe from Chasing Amy. It's a fan's dream come true and a curious passerby's excellent way to kill 20 minutes.
Spy novelist. His latest book, Blood of Victory, comes out in August.
C.C. Filson, in Seattle, makes the most extraordinary luggage, not like anything else in the world. I first came across their stuff four years ago in a store that sells supplies to hunters. I bought an incredible valise made out of canvaslike cloth and leather. I've taken it with me on a lot of planes since then, and it smells the same as the day I bought it.
Filson also makes something called "tin cloth" hunting jackets. They're very tough and soaked in paraffin, like English Barbour coats, so they're very water-repellent and won't snag on thorns. They also have a coat called the Tin Cruiser that has four large front pockets and a carrier pocket in back. The coat was designed by the company's founder, who used to hold a patent on it. Wouldn't you like to wear a patented coat?
The company has been in Seattle since 1897. I think in a funny way it's like L.L. Bean was at one time in its history. Everything there is very expensive but lasts forever. It will outlive you.
Founder and artistic director of the Mark Morris Dance Group.
In my neighborhood, the Murray Hill section of Manhattan, there's a shop I adore called Kalustyan's. It's been there forever. It was founded in 1944 and then sold in 1987 to Aziz Osmani and Sayedul Alam, who are from Bangladesh. It's a spice and grocery and cookware store. It has everything for cooking from India and the Middle East, including stuff that you can't find anyplace else. Once I was cooking a big Balinese-style dinner -- a delicious gado-gado and a green curry -- and I went there for my krupuk, which are Indonesian shrimp crackers (they look like Styrofoam), and frozen kaffir lime leaves.
The business -- which also has a small restaurant counter on the second floor that serves fabulous falafel and hummus -- is meticulously, beautifully clean and well organized. It sells all kinds of breads and crackers (including papadam and nan) and nuts and dried fruits, as well as more than 30 kinds of rice and grains, all of which you can buy in bulk. It has chutneys, curry pastes, homemade yogurts, desserts (pista kulfi, or pistachio ice cream, is my favorite), coffees from countries ranging from Greece to Armenia, teas, cookbooks, incense, massage oils, shampoos, soaps, and hair dyes. And then there are tiny packages of things you can't identify. The place also sells staples -- condensed milk, for example, and ice-cube trays -- and cookware: small stainless-steel thali dishes from India and coffee boilers to make delicious Turkish coffee. It's got everything you would ever want. The owners are extra nice, and they give you a little free something if you buy enough stuff. I always tell them that I'm so thrilled to have found the thing I'm looking for, and they say, "Well, of course." It's a genius store.
Former U.S. poet laureate.
The New Deal Fish Market, in Cambridge, Mass., is a neighborhood business that also excels: it is the best and does not need any flash or crowing. The wild mussels cost a third of what the cultivated ones at fancy stores cost, and they taste better. The sushi-grade tuna is heavenly. This uncosmetic storefront with its interior treasures reminds me of the little corner stores of childhood, where we got penny candy, sodas, and such: small, plain, mysteriously loaded with desirable goods.
National Public Radio commentator and novelist. His most recent book is Casanova in Bohemia.
Faulkner House Books is to New Orleans what Shakespeare & Company is to Paris, City Lights is to San Francisco, and the 8th Street Bookshop (RIP!) used to be to New York City. Located in the house where a 27-year-old William Faulkner wrote his first novel, Soldiers' Pay, between prolonged debauches with women and whiskey, this unique bookstore provides a literary salon, a place for writers to drop by and exchange gossip, and a superb selection of books slanted toward contemporary southern writers. The benevolent deity behind this den of intimate literariness is Joe DeSalvo, who gave up a successful law career to realize his dream bookstore. He and his wife, Rosemary, are the cofounders of a society that sponsors a Faulkner festival, an exquisite five-day literary party held in December each year. Both the bookstore and the fest are known among gourmands as nodules radiating intelligence and joie de vivre. I only hope that Joe and Rosemary will still speak to me now that I've revealed their elegant and quasi-secret business to the masses.
Robert B. Parker
Mystery writer. His most recent books include Potshot and Widow's Walk.
My favorite small business is a women's clothing store called Susanna, in Cambridge, Mass. I don't know very much about women's clothing and rarely wear it. But my wife, Joan, does. And when it's time for a gift, which is often, I can count on Susanna not only to have something that Joan will like but also to pick it out, know her size, suggest appropriate accessories ("These red-leather gloves will go perfectly"), gift-wrap it (complete with bow), and bring it to my house. Many Christmases, anniversaries, birthdays, and affectionate impulses have been fully realized with none of the fashion gaffes I would inevitably have committed had I done my shopping unattended. God bless you, Susanna.
Best-selling romance novelist. Her most recent book is Three Fates.
Turn the Page Bookstore Cafe is a charming establishment in the rural town of Boonsboro, Md., where I live. The store resides in a pre-Civil War town house right on Main Street. There's a wonderful covered front porch with a bench so that customers can sit and read while the traffic -- such as it is -- goes by. Inside are tables where customers drink fancy coffee while they read, sofas where they relax and sometimes nap, and a nook where kids play. The staff is warm and friendly. But there's one more reason why Turn the Page is my primary source of books. The owner is handsome and sexy and lets me take all the books I want on the barter system. All I have to provide in return is a hot meal or a romantic interlude. It's a pretty good deal from my standpoint, and very handy, since I'm married to him.
Edward O. Wilson
Harvard entomologist and ecologist and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes. His most recent book is The Future of Life.
Once or twice a week I go to the Wales Copy Center in Lexington, Mass., where I photocopy manuscripts and letters and send faxes. The manager, Karen Packard, has been there for 27 years, and she and her assistant are superfast, superefficient, and superfriendly. The store offers a variety of services, such as preparing special stationery and advising customers on invitations for weddings and other occasions. But what really makes it notable is Ms. Packard, who seems to know everybody in town.
It's such a cheerful place -- you wouldn't expect having a manuscript copied to be an enjoyable experience, but Karen Packard makes it one. Wales has the spirit of an old-time general store. All it lacks is a cracker barrel.
Mystery writer and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter. His books include Bad News and The Hot Rock.
Across the road from the place in upstate New York where I mostly live are friends named Carol Smillie and Walter Kisly. Walter is a carpenter and construction man. Until 1994, Carol was a consultant with a financial-services firm, specializing in retirement plans. When a wave of downsizing made her job so intolerable it was giving her nightmares, she reluctantly quit and looked around for something else. She took a temporary job at a local garden shop.
Walter, meanwhile, had started making coffee tables using copper-tube bases and stone or glass tops. He got some sales, but the business wasn't taking off. Carol found the copper-construction idea interesting and used it to design garden trellises -- graceful, sturdy shapes with patina. The trellises were well liked, and that business did take off.
The company, which they call Sycamore Creek, now sells to individuals and nurseries all over the country. Walter and Carol go to the trade shows, and they have a growing retail business offering trellises of their own design or custom-made to a customer's design. As a luxury item, designer garden trellises are certainly not economy-proof, but the business is compact enough to survive the lows. During the highs, one or two part-time workers help build and ship the trellises and other copperwork.
Carol now knows things about herself she would never have found out if her old job hadn't become so oppressive. She has an excellent eye for design and great telephone-marketing skills. Walter has experimented with the copper tubing, improving the appearance and sturdiness of the pieces.
Sycamore Creek is my favorite small business partly because the owners are friends and neighbors. But it's more than that. These people started from a very low point, not knowing how to survive or what to do next. And they discovered inside themselves skills that let them find a niche in the world by creating something new. That's the most wonderful kind of business story I can think of.
Two-time Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker. Her films include Harlan County, U.S.A; American Dream; and Wild Man Blues.
There are two wonderful sea-food shops in Southampton, N.Y., both called Clamman Seafood Market. Opened by Paul Koster in 1982, the stores quickly became known as great places to get the freshest seafood. Paul would personally go out and select the fish from Long Island's best fishermen each morning.
Two years ago, Paul was helping a neighbor when he was tragically killed in a tractor accident. It seemed that the community would lose Paul and Clamman Seafood Market forever. But then the entire community came out to support Paul's wife, Jean, and their children. People brought over meals for months. Paul's friends taught Jean how to buy fish and what to look for to get the best -- just as Paul did.
Jean now runs the shops, and her children lend a hand during the summers, when crowds of savvy New Yorkers seeking "the best" know right where to find it. Jean's teen-age son, Cutter, gets a kick out of meeting celebrities like Jon Bon Jovi and Jon Stewart at parties that Clamman caters throughout the Hamptons. Jean reminds herself and Cutter that Paul is still with them, watching them, helping them get it right. The mom-and-pop stores are now mom-and-kids stores, and there's no doubt that pop would be proud -- and that he lives on in their hearts.
Olympian and four-time winner of both the Boston and the New York City marathons.
I like Celtic Weavers, in Boston. I'm Scottish on my father's side; my mother's Irish. I buy Irish ceramics called Belleek, Waterford crystal, and woven goods. I bought my mother a shawl that she can wear while she watches TV. I bought shamrock key rings as stocking stuffers for my kids. The store connects me to my family's past.
Jazz musician and composer; artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center.
In the early 1980s I heard a rumor about some great trumpets. Musicians were telling me, "This is an amazing trumpet; you've got to try it." Then, in 1985, David Monette [owner of David G. Monette Corp., in Portland, Oreg.] came to Madison, Wis., where I was playing, and gave me a trumpet. And I just loved it. Other trumpets didn't sound like his. It was the proportion of the metal, the balance of the instrument, the quality of the alloy. He had invented another technology, another way to create brass instruments. Now he's legendary. All over the world there's a Monette-trumpet movement.
One time I was recording in Providence. I had a brand-new trumpet, and a slide dropped out of it. Monette is the only one who can fix his own horns. He was in Chicago, and he flew from Chicago to Providence and fixed it.
Monette is always giving trumpets away. He made me an unbelievable trumpet with carvings and designs and a big double bell, like a space-age trumpet. It has all kinds of jewels in the valves. It has carvings of people I know and things from my life. It's an unbelievably designed trumpet. I can't play it, though. The sound is too different from the other players in the section. But it's a special horn.
Monette is a small-business man through and through -- always trying to create the highest-quality product and balance that with his financial obligations. And I like the fact that the people in his shop go out together, come to concerts together -- there's a familial feeling.
Monette's love for the music -- for his instruments -- goes way past love and passion. He's like Santa. Santa of the trumpet.
Mystery writer. His most recent novels include Hit List and Hope to Die.
Two guys were talking about the city, and one said that you could buy or rent absolutely anything in New York, anything you could think of. Ha, said the other guy, Suppose I want to rent an elephant? The first guy looked up a number, dialed it, hit speakerphone, and asked the person who answered what it would cost to rent an elephant. Here's what the guy on the phone said: You want Indian or African?
That's Murray's Cheese Shop, in Greenwich Village. I had some cheese at a party once and loved it. I asked the hostess what kind it was. She thought it was an aged gouda. I went to Murray's and asked if they had any aged gouda. Here's what the guy at Murray's said: You want one-year, two-year, or five-year?
Murray's has every kind of cheese you could think of and hundreds more you never heard of. Express interest or curiosity, and they give you a taste. I don't go there all that frequently, alas, but I really like knowing it's there.
Author of Seabiscuit: An American Legend.
When I was a child, we lived in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and on weekends and in the summer we'd go to our family farm next to the Antietam battlefield. It was a 90-minute drive in a station wagon with no air-conditioning -- four kids and two collies, everyone sweltering and carsick. And all the way up the kids would fantasize about stopping at Main's Ice Cream.
Main's was in an excruciatingly tiny place called Middletown, Md. There was a little red and green neon sign on Alternate 40 that told you it was there, and still you almost missed it. You walked down a dark, meandering alley and found yourself in an incredibly ratty place: warped wooden floors, no decor, no seats -- and the best ice cream you've ever eaten. They had very few flavors, but it was all handmade on the premises. I always got a double dip of chocolate; my sister got sherbet. Then we'd climb back in the car and, because we had our windows down, there would be a vortex of collie hair whirling around, and we'd all have to lick our ice cream as fast as we could to prevent the dog hair from sticking to it. Main's was a huge part of my childhood.
Western novelist, scholar, and critic. His book Franklin's Crossing was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Punkin Center was located on the southeast corner of a remote crossroads in the West Texas county of Hardeman. The roads themselves were arrow straight and carelessly paved with that curious gray-white concrete you associate with old movies and what little remains of the pre-World War II highway system. The stripes were fuzzy orange, and the cracked surfaces were streaked with black tar patches halfheartedly applied to cover the potholes. Once, the roads probably came or went somewhere important, but other thoroughfares replaced them long before I was born. Now they were merely country roads leading nowhere except to Punkin Center. And that was good enough.
The store itself was a kind of everything place. On one side were antique gasoline pumps with mechanical handles that required an attendant to fill a glass tank on top. There was no longer an attendant. Nor was there gasoline, not since before the war, when coupons were hard to get and good help even harder. The driveway was mostly gravel, but it used to be just dirt -- mud when it rained. In those days in West Texas, it never rained.
There was a long covered porch that ran the width of the front. On one side it was anchored by a huge chinaberry tree, on the other by a towering mimosa. Along the planked floor of the porch, benches, wooden rocking chairs, and old metal lawn chairs lined up, facing out to the dusty fields. Beneath flyspecked sash windows and an array of rusting metal advertisements stood a row of block-ice coolers. In each was the excuse for the stop. "We'll get us a cold Delaware Punch," my grandfather would say as he piloted my grandmother's old Model A into the dusty lot. We'd wait for it to quit dieseling so he could set the brake, then we'd climb the splintery wooden steps -- a threat to barefoot boys -- and sit a spell in the shade, dripping bottles of frigid liquid confection in our hands.
Inside the store were shadows and smells: leather and fresh denim, gun oil, grease, and the distinctive odor of mothballs and linseed. The walls were hung with utensils for field and kitchen, and the shelves were stocked with old-fashioned hand tools and cooking gimcracks. In the back, gathering dust in the darkness, were groceries. Nothing fancy. Breakfast cereals hot and cold, bread, flour and meal, canned vegetables and fruits, cans of lard and syrups, crackers and cookies, and one small rack of nickel candy bars -- Baby Ruths, Butterfingers, 3 Musketeers, Cherry Mashes, and Zeros -- that I was forbidden to touch and knew better than to ask for.
A long counter ran down one side of the store, and on top was a long roll of brown paper and a spindle of string for wrapping bulky purchases. At one end, a massive cash register rang with the sharpness of a rifle report when a sale was made. The iceboxes, where the dairy produce reposed, were the only concession to modernity. H-bombs and Sputnik were of far less consequence than gone-over cottage cheese.
After making our manners with Mr. Lazare, the storekeeper, who always wore a huge white apron, white shirt, and tie -- and who never seemed glad to see anyone -- we'd sit outside on the rusty lawn chairs. Around us sat men in bleach-faded overalls and blue and brown work shirts starched so stiff you could cut yourself on a crease. They held Coke and Dr Pepper and 7 Up bottles in leather-callused hands. Now and then one would sigh or curse mildly, roll a cigarette, or fire a cheap cigar. Some worked plugs and expertly spat their amber juice onto the red-ant beds that formed large bald circles in the gravel of the drive. Few spoke more than a few words. The cotton wasn't going to make it again this year. The wheat planted last summer had been left in the fields to feed cattle. A mule was better than a horse for work in the sun, but milkers went sour in hot weather. There was nothing to do about chickens that wouldn't lay but to eat them, and they were too tough to fry, had to be boiled.
I was barefoot and in short pants, sunburned and bored, the only kid in sight. I knew better than to talk, or even to move. My grandfather never scolded me, but I always feared he might. So I sat there and was quietly proud of him -- my grandfather, who always wore a gray felt Stetson, whose shirt was always white and khakis were always clean, whose boots laced high on his ankle because, he once told me, that's what real cowboys wore.
Punkin Center is gone now and so are all the other stores like it, places that never knew neon signs and air-conditioning, that sold only what you needed, not what you wanted, but never tempted you beyond your means. Nearly 50 years later there's not a timber or a nail left to remind anyone that this was once a place where men driven hopeless by drought and bad luck could sit wordl