There has been a death in my neighborhood. I speak of another independent, small business killed by an influx of chain retailers. In this case a grocery store, which opened its doors in 1875, has expired.
No more will I stop there to buy meat, talk to the butcher about the various merits of New Zealand and American lamb. No more will I ask the manager
to see if he can get yellow corn rather than the white corn favored in Northern Virginia.
One could shrug off another small business going to the wall as a sign of life in the age of chain retailing, if it were not for the relentless rhetoric from politicians about the need for and virtue of small business. John McCain lauds it. Barack Obama genuflects to it. And all 535 members of Congress get weepy about it.
Their argument for small business is that it creates jobs. To me, the job creation is a given. My argument is that entrepreneurism and small business define who we are as a nation and how satisfied millions of Americans are with their lives.
Yet small business is under relentless attack, mostly lacking the basic tools to defend itself. Credit is an important ingredient, but it can be overrated. Startup small businesses have never been able to look to banks for seed money. Banks do not do that kind of lending, which is why so many small businesses are started with credit cards, family loans, or out of the earnings of a working spouse.
In my mind, after credit, habitat is the great burden of small business. By habitat, I mean a place to work out of at a rent that is not exorbitant. If there is a new shopping center in your neighborhood, look and see if there is any new small business there. Probably not. It will be as bland and homogeneous as the last shopping center you visited. It will be as dead, as lifeless, as predictable, and as antithetical to small business as its developers could make it. All right, they let in a sandwich franchise. Those are not really small businesses: they are big businesses that have laid off their risk on the unsuspecting franchisee. Franchisees, in my experience, are the most unhappy and exploited people in business, the victims of a pernicious system of sharecropping.
If you want to feel the life and vitality of small business doing its thing, you must seek out the older strip malls–often awaiting demolition–or the crumbling warehouse district. The lucky new entrepreneur is the one who can operate from the kitchen table, the basement, or the garage.
The next great burden comes with the hiring of staff. It is the high cost of health insurance. This should not involve employers, but it does–and it involves the small as brutally as the large.
For 33 years I operated a small publishing company, which I founded. It was a success, but we were sorely tried by insurers who charged a lot and would not fill all of their obligations (a cancer patient had the care paid for, but not the pain killers.) Rents also escalated, based more on our ability to pay. I hope there is a special enclosure in hell for property company managers and health insurers.
Where then are the politicians, those who weep so copiously for small business? They are mostly between the sheets with big business facilitating the destruction of the small entrepreneur. Mom-and-pop operations do not have lobbyists, cannot afford white shoe law firms and do not run political action committees. The ability, upheld by the courts, of local authorities to use eminent domain to condemn areas of low economic activity in favor of new developments is an example of the war by the big against the small. It would be biblical, except in this case, David looses and Goliath triumphs.
The damage to who we are as a people is hard to calculate, but it is there. Who would rather not run their own restaurant than manage a chain outlet? Ditto a bookstore. Ditto a hardware store. Ditto an auto-repair shop. Ditto every line of endeavor from exporting to consulting. I have yet to meet one individual who preferred being employed in a behemoth to being self-employed.
For me, the latest outrage is learning that airlines are charging $25 for tickets bought through travel agents. The airlines, in good times and bad, have had it in for travel agents: the quintessential small business. Shed a tear for the travel agencies, along with every courageous individual who wants to have the real promise of the American Dream: a business of one’s own. With that comes a dignity, a sense of worth that is good both for the nation and the individual. And,yes, small businesses make life richer for the consumer while creating jobs.