small business

What About the Shop Around the Corner?

The hardware store around the corner closed down sometime in the last few weeks, and it’s my fault.

On Sunday, I made a stop for some batteries and saw the sign on the door. But it was dusk, and I didn’t notice the plywood in the windows. I wondered how they could stay in business with such limited hours. Then, I went to the chain pharmacy that shared the same parking lot instead.

I don’t think it was the limited hours that caused the hardware store to close.

Elwood Adams Hardware of Worcester, Massachusetts claims to be the oldest operating hardware store in the United States, having begun business in 1782.

Though it was a franchise, the hardware store was locally owned and kept a few families working and cared for. I don’t know if they offered healthcare benefits or paid vacation time, but it was always a friendly place to be, and on the weekends, they offered free popcorn.

As a homeowner, I regularly found myself making trips to the hardware store. The large home-supply warehouses stocked more items and were located closer to my house. And I occasionally did give in to the urge for cheap mulch or a larger variety of sand paper grades. But though it took longer and cost more, I often drove to the hardware store and bought garbage bags or liquid drain cleaner simply because I wanted to live in a neighborhood that had a local hardware store.

The neighborhood obviously could not sustain the business, though. My favorite coffee shop also packed up, though the owners moved their establishment just down the street. And the pet store that used to be in the same strip mall closed up, too. An armed robbery took place at one of the convenience stores at that corner a few months ago, and last summer, while I was enjoying ice cream at the Baskin- Robbins, I witnessed a petty thievery of the tip jar. The young man working behind the counter chased after the thieves to no avail, but the policeman enjoying his ice cream saved the day.

I don’t want to see the neighborhood end up this way, but my purchases aren’t enough to carry a small business, and if inertia is pulling a neighborhood down, what can one person do?

What should one person do?

According to a 2011 Gallup poll, one in three small business owners are very or moderately worried about going out of business in 2012. With this kind of hesitancy, will small business owners like Mike, the proprietor of my neighborhood hardware store, invest in growing their businesses in a way that deserves my patronage?

When I stopped by the hardware store to look for a Christmas gift back in December, the shelves were sparsely stocked and I ended up shopping at a large retail chain instead. Was this a cause or effect of the eventual demise of the shop?

Nostalgia lends part of the mystique of the local hardware store. I remember two such shops I used to frequent with my dad when I was a young girl. In both cases, the floors were oily, the aisles cluttered, and the aroma somewhat metallic. The bins of nuts and bolts and screws and nails, with their scoops and little plastic bags just like the candy store, opened up to me the possibilities of fixing things and making things. My dad excels in both.

The “buy local” movement also has gathered me up in its swell. The idea of buying things grown and made and distributed by my neighbors feels more sustainable and allows me to maintain my identity as a person rather than just a consumer. When I walked into the hardware store, Mike always recognized me, asked about the last project he helped me with, and practically begged to help me again, even if I was just looking for a simple drain spout.

And I won’t even talk about the importance of small businesses to the health of a neighborhood, giving people options for walking or bicycling to do their errands rather than getting in their car and leaving the neighborhood, taking with them their money.

But the local hardware store also stocked the same items manufactured overseas that I could buy at any of the chain stores, and the markups were even higher. And supposing Mike wanted to buy plungers and garden fertilizer and duplicate keys from a local manufacturer, or even a US manufacturer, he probably couldn’t find one. Or if he could, he himself couldn’t afford to shop local.

I love the idea of locally owned businesses, and as often as I can, I try to shop in stores and eat in restaurants that have the same commitment. My employer is a small, local business, afterall–a fact we emphasize in marketing. The estimates range from 40-80 percent of how many of us in this country work for small employers (those who have fewer than 500 employees).

But I also have to be able to afford the clothes and the food and the household goods I consume, which means you might also find me wandering the aisles of some giant big box store, with a full cart.

I guess I shouldn’t take all the blame for the demise of the local hardware. But I’m praying for Mike and that vacant building. And I’m looking for the next store with the oily floor and metallic smell where I can lay down a little bit of my hard-earned cash from time to time.

Let’s hope they have a popcorn machine.