On each day of Small Business Week, Inc. will spotlight a different competitive advantage of local brick-and-mortar companies. 

Customers appreciate it when local vendors donate to causes they support. But community isn't just about philanthropy. Great small businesses go where their neighbors and customers go. They participate in local functions and festivals and fashion shows and fun runs. Many also act as community hubs, offering for free their own classes or events. Some just provide places for people to hang out.

These companies are exemplars of community involvement.

Bookmans Entertainment Exchange

Sean Feeney recalls the day in the mid '90s when he noticed two customers a couple of aisles apart browsing the shelves of Bookmans Entertainment Exchange. One was Supreme Court chief justice William Rehnquist. The other was crime family boss Joe Bonanno, who owned a home in Tucson, where Bookmans is based.

"The confluence of customers here," Feeney says, "can be remarkable."

Bob Oldfather envisioned that confluence in 1986, when he moved his then 10-year-old business into an empty supermarket three times the size of its original location. Back then, Bookmans was already transitioning from a used bookstore into a used books-records-musical-instruments-electronics-whatever-customers-bring-us store. Business was surging, thanks to Oldfather's ubiquitous television ads in which he pitched the store's eclecticism while sporting a trademark fedora.

Bookmans was also a "third place" years before that term entered the public consciousness. "He had to work there every day, so he wanted it to be a cool place to hang out," says Feeney, the company's president, who joined Bookmans in 1993 and now runs the day-to-day.

So Oldfather scattered sofas, club chairs, and other seating throughout the Tucson flagship store, as well as later branches in Flagstaff and Phoenix. (Bookmans today has six locations.) He fixed up the bathrooms to high-end restaurant quality. He posted signs everywhere inviting people to bring in their coffee and their pets. Dogs came. So did cats, ferrets, and iguanas.

Like many bookstores, Bookmans hosts regular story hours and other kids' activities. But the stores--open until 10 p.m.--also offer painting classes, film screenings, concerts, and video game tournaments. The Backroom Book Club, held in the stockroom, became so popular that multiple book groups now meet in that space. "There is something magical about a book discussion in a room where the secret treasures are hidden," Feeney says. "Even though it's mostly just books on carts waiting to go out on the floor."

The business is a major supporter of education, awarding schools more than $20,000 a year for projects such as building a life skills room or a cyber café. Since its inception, it has given teachers 20 percent off on not only their classroom purchases but also their personal ones.

And the company proudly flies the anti-censorship banner. Bookmans will carry virtually anything if the staff thinks someone might buy it. Mostly no one complains, though there's been pushback on, for example, The Anarchist Cookbook and a vintage edition of The Story of Little Black Sambo. During Banned Books Week, controversial titles are cloaked in brown paper. And the store's own "Censorship Is the Assassination of an Idea" T-shirts (illustrated with a shattering light bulb) have sold well for two decades.

Bookmans's community role has helped it survive the onslaught of Amazon, says Feeney. "We still have a good price and an incredible selection," he says. "But now it is more about the environment."

The Silver Room

For 10 hours on July 21, 53rd Street in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood will be the hottest place in town. That's the date of the Silver Room's Sound System Block Party, which over 15 years has evolved from 200 revelers in an alley to a rollicking music and visual arts festival expected, on the basis of last year's tallies, to attract 40,000 people and contribute more than $1.5 million to local vendors.

The block party has become "a hub for artists to hone their craft," says the Silver Room's founder, Eric Williams. "Pretty much every black creative in Chicago has done something with us."

Williams opened the Silver Room, a jewelry store, in Wicker Park in 1997 after eight years of traveling the country as a street vendor. (The store's name is a riff on the name of his father's bar, the Blue Room, where Williams grew up listening to music.) Gradually he added other products: T-shirts, hats, grooming supplies for men.

A friend to many local artists, Williams displayed their work on his walls, turning the store into a gallery. Residents began asking to use it for book signings, classes, birthday parties, and weddings. "The only thing we have not had in the store is a funeral," says Williams, who derives roughly a third of revenue from renting out the space.

Williams says he launched the block party in 2003 after failing to persuade the Wicker Park Chamber of Commerce to include more performers of color in local events. "I called up some artist friends of mine. Some DJs. Some singers. Some dancers," he says. "Everybody loved it, and we did it again the next year."

The block party is free to the public. Williams funds it though sponsorships and private and corporate donations. The University of Chicago and the Obama Foundation, both in the neighborhood, have supported the event.

Williams's staff is currently in charge while he is away at Harvard on a fellowship to study the creation of for-profit art- and community-focused enterprises. He considers the Silver Room a potential model for linking retail and art with economic development.

"We've seen kids who came in here with their parents and are now buying gifts for their girlfriends," Williams says. "We've seen artists who could make a living because this store is in their neighborhood. That's why we are here."

High Strung Violins & Guitars

Three nights a week, between 10 and 30 musicians troop into Durham, North Carolina's  High Strung Violins & Guitars for a Learning Jam. They sit in folding chairs beneath a painted tin ceiling and practice, depending on the night, selections from the Opry canon, Irish jigs, jazz, or old-time favorites like "Cluck Old Hen" and "Whiskey Before Breakfast." The store's Ukulele Jam--now 12 years old--spawned the Durham Ukulele Orchestra. All jams are free, designed to foster enthusiasm for playing music and give locals the chance to perform together.

"We say if you have been wanting to do this and you have an instrument, come by and we will work you into the group," says owner Lee Raymond.

There are several stringed instrument shops around Durham that target professional musicians. High Strung is all about the amateurs. "We have all been beginners, and we all love beginners," says Raymond, who took up the fiddle during what she calls a midlife crisis.

The business offers sales, rentals, and repairs. Roughly 50 percent of revenue derives from an onsite school that teaches everything from banjo to viola. But Raymond and her staff of 15 also spend much of their time out at events, museums, retirement communities, and other locations in the Triangle region. There they might lead Learning Jam members in a concert or run learn-the-ukulele-in-10-minutes workshops.

Most popular are the Petting Zoos, which High Strung conducts for free at fairs and other events. Three tables are laid out with violins, violas, guitars, banjos, mandolins, and harps--many diminutively sized. As children wander up, employees show them how to hold and coax sounds from the instruments. "It is usually not a pretty noise. But that's OK," Raymond says.

"Everyone who works here takes it very seriously that our job is to get people to play," she adds. "Especially the ones who say they can't."

Gordon Salon

One man's trash is another's couture. Last month, inside an Infiniti dealership in Glencoe, Illinois, models paraded down an imported catwalk wearing outfits concocted from old magazines, shampoo bottles, can tabs, and Starbucks cups. The materials were refuse collected from  Gordon Salon, which has four locations in the Chicago area. Gordon employees crafted the ensembles, working individually and in teams. 

Last month marked Gordon Salon's fifth annual "Trashion Show," part of the company's all-out celebration of Earth Month. A few other salons pitched in dresses. For the accompanying auction, the Gordon team solicited gift certificates from businesses like the local Arthur Murray Dance Studio and signed Chicago Blackhawks memorabilia. The event raised $12,000 for the nonprofit Alliance for the Great Lakes. "The environment is the overarching issue of our time," says co-owner Tony Gordon, whose company uses only natural products.

Gordon is a fourth-generation stylist. "I was raised around the family dining table talking about hair," he says. He and his wife, Pam, launched Gordon Salon in 1999, in part to provide rigorous training for hair designers whom they believe beauty schools often fail.

The company has always raised money for causes that matter to its customers, such as the animal shelter PAWS. But the environment is closest to Gordon's heart. In April, he rallies staff and the community around it.

So, in addition to the Trashion Show, Gordon Salon sponsors a program called "Save Water/Drink Wine." Each store assembles a basket of fine vino and sells raffle tickets. Another fundraiser is a yoga event, with a professional instructor and a DJ. In past years, the company has organized beach cleanups, in which locals--wearing the salon's hair coloring gloves for safety--retrieve cigarette butts and old Mylar balloons from the shores of Lake Michigan.

Last month's selection for the company book club: Al Gore's An Inconvenient Sequel. "It gets everyone on board intellectually and emotionally," Gordon says.

 

Published on: May 2, 2018