, Salem, MA

February 18, 2014

Column: Confessions of a small-business fanatic

Jo Kadlecek
The Salem News

---- — It started with flowers. Roses really, the color of cherry tomatoes, delivered fresh from the truck to living rooms or offices throughout my neighborhood. Veldkamp Florist had been around, it seemed, since forever, and my mom always called them whenever we had to go to a funeral or an anniversary party. I went to school with a couple of Veldkamp kids, but I sort of felt sorry for them: They never could go out for the basketball team or attend the winter dances. Christmas and Valentine’s Day were just too important for florists. I guess those Veldkamp kids needed to help trim the roses.

Flowers turned to root beer. My friend’s mom owned and operated one of the last existing A & W Root Beer drive-ins in our city, and one summer in high school, I needed a job. So, I car-hopped. I took orders and poured root beer. I watched my friend’s mom flip burgers, scoop ice cream and count money at the end of every day, hoping to take home enough to pay her light bills after she paid us. It wasn’t easy work, but it was hers.

I followed my nose throughout college and a short career in public education, in and out of bakeries owned by three generations of Millers, pizza joints run by Italian immigrants, and beauty shops operated by Millie and Jessica and CarolAnn. I liked going into these small places; they were homey and real and familiar. I liked seeing family photos taped to the cash register or handwritten message boards outlining the day’s choices when I walked in.

They were different from the shops at the malls that always felt like a hospital ward in comparison. I never liked hospitals.

So the habit stuck. Through most of my adult life, I’ve remained a faithful fan of the small business. While some friends cheer the Giants or applaud the latest techno-gadget thing or — gasp! — order their books online from the beast-who-will-not-be-named, I’ve always been a sucker for the underdogs around the block.

Which is why, I suppose, I can’t forget the literary Irish couple who ran a copy center and typing service because they loved words and each other enough to work together 24/7. Or Tony’s Laundromat where Charlie, the owner, would polish the dryers and scold the teenagers who made too much noise. Or the owner of the single-screen cinema who mortgaged his house to make sure the “monster-plexes” didn’t destroy the joy of going to the movies. Or the Brown Brothers who inherited their father’s bicycle shop 60 years ago and admitted “the first 59 were tough.”

I can’t forget the dozens of other heroic characters who’ve dug their heels into the corner of their community to keep their business — hardware, drugstore, cleaners, whatever — going. No matter what. No matter how many chain restaurants or Wal-Marts popped up around them. After all, they’ve sacrificed their lives, their history, their messy accounting books every day in their pint-sized halls of commerce. And by doing so, I can’t help but wonder if they’ve also made these places as sacred as any church or temple, spaces where faith still struggles beside economic reality. Where dignity isn’t lost on a price tag. Where conversations aren’t reduced to sales strategies.

Call me a hippie or a quack, but I like buying local. In our mad world of Internet shopping and conglomerate addictions, buying local helps me to remember the real people, families and neighbors who still run their small businesses on principle and passion. I guess they keep something alive that the hosts of capitalism can’t kill, no matter how they’ve tried. And they have.

These guys, though, remind us of the stories attached to our purchases, the breathing testimonies that line our pockets, the human tenacity that connects us to each other. They remind us we belong. That our give-and-take culture doesn’t have to be as greedy or as chilly as it seems.

After all, we’ll always need flowers to send.


Jo Kadlecek teaches journalism, feature writing and public relations writing at Gordon College. She lives in Beverly.