Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
But do they? Do they really?
Savings, variety, and convenience are desirable. But they are not cockle-warmers. Although we appreciate the advantages bestowed by scale, human beings reserve affection for the specific. That applies to the towns and cities where we live, or grew up, or return to whenever we can. And it applies to the businesses in those towns: distinctive enterprises that soak up local flavor like an open carton of baking soda in the refrigerator.
National Goliaths have been scraping local Davids off the soles of their shoes for decades. The proliferation of big boxes and chains weakens our sense of place and connection, which are further imperiled by frequent relocations and retreats into cyberspace. Companies with roots in their communities--not just stores but also manufacturers, service businesses, and even banks--are bulwarks against dissolution into the United States of Bland.
In her forthcoming book, This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live, journalist Melody Warnick explores a slew of reasons both economic and psychic that small local companies matter. The book is a primer on how to make a forced marriage--in this case between a woman and her new town--work. For career reasons Warnick and her family moved to five states in 13 years. Warnick anticipated each change would provide a "geographic cure" for her ills. That never happened. So after relocating to Blacksburg, Virginia in 2013, she embarked on a 10-step program to bind her heartstrings to her adopted community.
Step No. 2 (after walk your city) was to support local companies. Small businesses "give a town a sense of character, uniqueness, and identity," Warnick says in an interview with Inc. "When everything gets paved over with Best Buys and Applebee's, there is no there there." She adds that buying local returns three times as much money to community coffers as buying from chains, whose headquarters reside elsewhere. "The more local businesses you have, the more revenue you make. Your tax base broadens, and you can do the things that make towns more enticing to live in, like make better parks and pave the roads," she says.
Small businesses can't compete with the chains on price or variety. But they more than compensate by responding to local needs and offering excellent customer service. More intriguingly, Warnick says, great local companies also can help fill a personal yearning for community and connectedness.
The concept of a "third place"--somewhere to be that is neither home nor work--rose with the coffee-shop-ing of America. But Warnick says any business where you are likely to run into people you know or that holds frequent events or provides space for get-togethers qualifies. At BookPeople, an independent store in Austin, where Warnick lived prior to Blacksburg, "they went all out-on events." For example, she says, a launch party for a novel in the mythology-themed Percy Jackson series featured "a model Roman city in the parking lot with swordfights and gladiators. That's the kind of place you want to hang out."
The friendliness of owners and employees is also important. "One phrase I discovered when I was researching the book was 'commercial friendships,' which are the relationships we establish with people selling us things," Warnick says. "That seems odd, like it's not a real relationship. But it can be. If you know your customers and your customers know you, you are no longer the guy behind the counter. You are their friend."
The return of hometown honeys
McGuckin Hardware is a third place where commercial friendships are routine. The 60-year-old family business lives in a shopping mall near the University of Colorado, in Boulder. Its staff is so knowledgeable and helpful that inventors, entrepreneurs, professors, and kids struggling with science projects routinely seek assistance with technical challenges. The store teaches shop-class-starved kids basic electronics skills and how to solder. Associates keep treats in their aprons for dogs that roam the aisles. Seniors drop by to pass the day.
We wrote about McGuckin a year ago as part of a series called Main Street, which celebrates businesses like those that won Warnick's heart for Blacksburg. Many have explicit links to their regions, such as Natural Selections, which preserves alligator heads for sale in New Orleans tourist shops; Fuel City, a small chain of ranch-themed gas stations in Dallas with live animals and homemade tacos; and Sea Bags, which manufactures totes and other items out of boat sails on the Custom House Wharf in Portland, Maine.
Others enrich their hometowns in unexpected ways. They make them quirkier (Quimby's Bookstore, the hipster zine shop in Chicago); kinder (Savannah, Georgia's Southern Pine Company, which restores historic structures and trains special-needs students in useful trades); or lovelier (Graceful Gardens, a creator of secret gardens in backyards and on rooftops across Philadelphia).
What these companies have in common is stories about what it's like to start, to grow, and to flourish in a particular place. The average American can expect to move 11.7 times in a lifetime, Warnick writes. And while some of our Main Street business owners are native to their regions, others settled there after multiple migrations. All are now rooted by their companies, just as their companies help others feel rooted.
Dave Hight, who took over McGuckin Hardware from his father-in-law--the founder--in 1966, says outsiders are always urging him to expand the store to other cities. "I had a lady in here asking, 'Would you put a store like this in London?' I had somebody from San Francisco: 'Would you put a store in the Bay Area like this?' I always say, this one store right here is enough."
After a brief hiatus, we are relaunching Main Street this month. In weeks to come we will visit, among many other entrepreneurs, the last American barnstormer, offering biplane rides in Xenia, Ohio; a mother and son who handcraft startlingly realistic artificial eyes in Kirkland, Washington; a former pharmacist fulfilling his dream of becoming a rum distiller on Daufuskie Island, South Carolina; and the grandson of a rancher reviving a traditional prairie cooking technique, in Fremont, Nebraska.
None of these companies is famous. But they are loved, admired, or appreciated by the communities that know them. We think people everywhere should know them, too.
Is there a wonderful company in your community? Let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org.