Yesterday I was riding my bike today near the city I live in, exploring the side roads off of the nearby interstate highway I hadn’t seen in over a decade. My family used to take these roads while driving to my grandparents house on a local mountain. I came across an old mom-and-pop mini-mart that my father used to take me to after riding our bikes for a cold soda. Back in the early and mid-nineties, it was usually populated by kids or local residents eating on the benches outside the store with their families, especially on a warm sunny afternoon like this.
When I found it, the place looked depressing. And abandoned. No cars parked in front of it. No customers inside. The exterior had seen better days. But as I got closer I saw the open sign on in the window.
As I stopped to take a short breath and turn around, a short man came out of the store. He looked to be Vietnamese, his hands held behind his back as he paced around. I knew he was the owner for several reasons besides the fact that he was the only person there. He looked tired, exhausted, and distressed as he surveyed the empty parking spots in front of the store, the cars that continued to drive by without stopping. His melancholic expression reflected the store’s financial condition. As if posing for a Normal Rockwell illustration, he turned around and gazed up at the faded wooden, hand-painted Coke sign hanging above the entrance.
The sad truth is that the store probably lost its business long before he sunk his savings into purchasing it. 30 years ago, a mini-mart like that tucked away near a neighborhood made sense. The interstate highway was a two lane road going through a quaint old mining town roughly one-sixth of its current population. The families living in the neighborhood who had once frequented the store moved after retirement, replaced by yuppy suburbanites who drive in leased cars to the shopping mall. The store also offers nothing that can’t be found at the nearest gas station.
It reminded me of the Pixar film Cars about a town on Route 66 that loses all its business when the route is replaced entirely.
Looking at that man reminded me of how much risk a small business owner takes, how great the loss and how little the reward can be. Always present is the possibility of financial disaster, hovering in the air like a banshee. Even if they succeed at some point they may fail several times before they reach it.
When a small business owner fails to make ends meet or keep operations going, they declare bankruptcy, shut down the business and start all over again.
At the end of the day, it takes a kind of courage most people don’t have.