A small group of business owners in our town meets periodically (actually, sporadically) to discuss problems and ideas we would like to bring to the larger business organization in town. We sponsor a few activities, such as a “People and Pets” Easter parade, but mostly it’s coffee and bagels and chat. Amazingly, this group has not morphed into a gripe group, but has come up with suggestions that the larger organization, too big to engage in this type of conversation if all members were present, has taken to heart. The latest example is better signage, both directional and on the individual businesses, which will require some modification to the town’s ordinances.
At yesterday morning’s meeting one topic was businesses that are closing and why. The owner of the candy shop was present, and she is closing this month. We all understood her reasons: her lease was up, the winter and early spring were spent operating at a loss, and the struggle after many years had just worn her out. She got a lot of sympathy from the rest of us. All of us with small retail businesses wonder regularly if we are just stubbornly swimming against the tide, if we should just face reality and get a job with regular pay and hours.
The owner of the other shop which has closed was not present, but her sister, who has owned a café in town for many years, was there, so we got the scoop. The business in question opened last November, so our question was, ”Why give up so soon?” The owner is extremely talented and creative, and her business was in artificial flower arrangements. Most of her customers were decorators, and all of the arrangements were custom made, except for a few on display in her shop. She was successful, but apparently it wasn’t “fun” anymore. As her sister told us, she hadn’t understood what she was getting into, and came up against the stark reality that any business, even those in which we get to spend our time with the things we enjoy most, entails a lot of sheer drudgery.
I’m always tickled when people tell me how they envy me: I’m my own boss, I get to spend all day with books and readers, and I am free to do whatever I want. They get a dreamy look on their faces, saying they would love to own a bookshop, and just be able to read all day if business is slow. I don’t shatter their reverie by pointing out that when things are slow, I’m usually catching up on some form of paperwork, or planning book orders or advertising, or just rearranging those lovely book displays to freshen them up. Or that because summer is our busiest time of year, I will be spending one late night next week doing quarterly tax filings and probably another on regular bookkeeping.
Any method of earning a living in which one is “independent” seems to be looked on by others as the pinnacle of freedom. “Independence” and “freedom” are not synonyms. Tell the writer with a deadline to meet how free he is. Or that all he has to do is write, not keep track of queries and submissions, or his quarterly tax filings (taxes seem to be on my mind this week – end of quarter!) The doctor, the lawyer, the shopkeeper, the writer, the consultant --- we’re all running businesses, and success requires planning, recordkeeping, and organization, in addition to tasks specific to the type of business, in my case ordering books, as well as all the paraphernalia a retail store needs. We all need a constant flow of customers, or clients, or readers, so marketing in all its multitudinous forms consumes time and resources.
I would not discourage anyone from using the talents given to them in an independent business. It is “fun,” and the “fun” part makes all the supporting effort worthwhile. But no one should expect that there is nothing to do but the tasks we enjoy, or that we can choose when to do them. I have seen two businesses in town fail because the owners enjoyed the freedom so much that they thought nothing of posting a sign on the door: “Beautiful afternoon. We’re taking off.” Customers who came expecting to make a purchase didn’t come back; they couldn’t rely on the store hours. We may be our own bosses, but it doesn’t mean we don’t have to answer to anyone.
Our little group of business owners meets for coffee and bagels for a simple reason. The only free time we have to get together is early in the morning before our shops open. The meetings have a fixed end time: we have to get the doors unlocked and the lights on. We’re a pretty happy bunch right now. We survived a ghastly winter and even the “hangover” which slowed business well into the spring. The weather is good, the shoppers are out -- and the hours are long, with no “down” time during the day to catch up. It’s what we signed up for, and we love it.