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A few weeks ago when Kenny Rogers passed away, people tweeted out some of their favorite videos involving him, and one of them was a moderately successful hit he had in the mid-80s called “20 Years Ago.”
As the title suggests, it’s a nostalgic look back at a simpler time, and it shows Rogers walking through an empty main street area in a small town. The Friday night pizza joint of his youth, the bowling alley, the hardware store…they were all gone. Life moved on.
I always liked that video because I can identify with it. It doesn’t mean those stores were the greatest thing since sliced bread; but they do bring back warm memories of a time where you could walk into a store and because it was a small business, the owner was in the store and you recognized many members of the staff even if you only came in there once a month. It gave you a feeling of being at home, much like the atmosphere of the fictional Cheers bar where everybody knew your name. You knew them and they knew you.
It’s one of the appeals of living in a small town. I spent 5 years living in Martinsville, VA back in the 80s, and while you may not have been able to partake of the latest and greatest in fashion and technology, there was that element of everyone knowing your name. You went to non-chain places like the Dutch Inn for their seafood buffet on a weekend night; or maybe Clarences out near Martinsville Speedway for their homemade cheeseburger and fries; there was even a little hole in the wall place on a tiny strip of asphalt called Wall Street that housed “Mike’s Hot Dogs” that I frequented quite a bit.
All had their own unique flavors, the people who worked there recognized you as a regular, and you enjoyed the experience. Some times you didn’t even need to order, as someone would say “you want what you usually get?” It was a stark contrast to the national chains that viewed labor as a disposable entity, with workers on a retail floor turning over every 80 to 90 days, and as a result, no one particularly cared if you felt special or not.
Places like that rarely last, and the reasons are pretty simple: they are independent businesses usually built by the work and energy of one person or one family. After a period of time, however, they grow old and the next generation doesn’t necessarily want to be part of it. Real estate prices also seem to end some of those businesses, as a landlord raises rent and squeezes out the mom and pop places for a higher paying, more national customer when possible.
But over time you realize they are more than just businesses. They bring back warm memories of other things going on in your life at a certain time, particularly if you move away to another town. At my 40-year high school reunion, the country club setting hosting the event was certainly nice. But I’d rather have been at Andy’s Pizza, where so many of us went for an “Andy’s Special” after a Friday night football game as a teenager. Alas, Andy passed away years ago and with it, any magic that small restaurant had. I don’t know if it even exists any more.
I bring all this up because if you have places like that in your life, you need to appreciate and support them all you can, while you can, because odds are most of them are going to be gone soon. Most small business people I know get into their business first because of a passion they have for doing whatever the business is selling. The debits and credits part of it all usually comes in second, and it’s not unusual to meet people who have run a business for a year or two and they still haven’t drawn a salary yet. They made sure to take care of their employees and the obligations of the business first.
Even when up and successful, these same owners never seem to go back and get that money they loaned to the business. They buy better equipment, hire more people and do whatever they can to make their product better. Their pride is in how good their business is, not how much money they individually make. They save a little here and there for when a slow month hits, but by and large, they take everything they make and pour it back into the business.
I’ve run big businesses and I have (and still do) own a small marketing firm. There is no contingency any business makes for having an economy totally come to a halt with no revenues coming in for one month, let alone two or three months or more. It’s like preparing your business for a wild dinosaur attack. It’s never happened before, and no one would ever expect it to happen in the future.
Thanks to the old banking axiom of when you owe a bank $50,000, you have a problem, but if you owe the bank $5 million, the bank has a problem, bigger companies can survive by borrowing more money. Banks are forced to do this when they have a huge loan outstanding to a company, because choking its money supply now almost guarantees the original loan never gets paid back because the business will fail. Loaning more now at least buys some time and creates some hope that one day, they might get paid back.
Smaller companies don’t have that luxury. With little saved and most owners tending to spend every penny on protecting their employees first, smaller business end up going away for good. That’s what is going on now, but you just won’t realize it until the dust has settled later in the year.
It won’t just be restaurants and craft stores either. Journalism is about to get a huge jolt. You’re already seeing a number of sportswriting organizations like Sports Illustrated and SB Nation announcing furloughs for their people from May 1 until the fall, and I'm not sure many will have much to return to. Gannett owns over 250 newspapers, is heavily in debt, and their stock has been trading under a dollar a share (in July of 2018, it was near $19). With no business to be done, there’s no reason to advertise, so there’s no revenue source for newspapers and websites. Can't pay bills or people if you don't have any revenue.
So remember last fall when you picked up a pizza at your favorite local joint, then came home, logged on to your favorite sports bulletin board and hammered some poor player or coach you never met? Neither may be around next fall. If they don’t have a national chain behind them with the ability to borrow another million dollars, they probably can't wait all this out.
These places will be missed, as the big chains will get bigger while the unique small businesses get crushed. If you have a favorite small business, do what you can and appreciate what you have. But regardless of what any of us do, we all may end up being like a character walking through an abandoned main street the way Kenny Rogers was in that video. Only it won’t be 20 years ago you’ll thinking about.
It will be more like 20 weeks ago.