For nearly fifty years, my grandfather owned and operated a grocery store in Gurnee, Illinois. It had two cash registers, a produce department, a freezer aisle, a couple of bakery cases, and a very well-regarded meat market. All seven of my mother’s siblings and their spouses worked at Welton’s Food Mart, and when I turned fourteen, I became the first of twenty-one grandkids to join the team. My grandfather paid me $1.25 an hour to paint signs, face soup cans, bag groceries, and eventually run a cash register.
It was such an old-fashioned place. We knew every shopper by name, knew their favorite cut of meat, their brand of cigarettes, whether their pets ate Alpo, Purina, or Gravy Train. We carried bags out to a customer’s car. We carried our customers too, allowing them to charge their groceries, and to keep charging, for months, or even years.
A kid in the neighborhood who snagged a job at Welton’s Food Mart and didn’t mess up too badly could practically guarantee positions for his or her siblings too. This kind of favoritism was good for the community. And it was good for those of us checkers who lusted after John Drennan. He worked in produce and the way he handled the Granny Smiths could make you weak in the knees. He resembled a fallen-from-grace version of Donny Osmond, and if he didn’t notice you, one of his back-up brothers might.
But all joking aside, it was a tough way to make a living. The profit margins were brutal. My grandpa took home for dinner whatever meat was going bad. The same lousy creep kept swiping hunks of cheddar and cans of tuna and no one could catch him. The back room conveyor belt kept breaking down. And then the meat cutters unionized.
It’s even harder today. Retailers must woo customers who can shop in their pjs with a cat on their lap and a mouse in their hand. They must attract people using rare kinds of pheromones — personalized customer service, tactile experiences, and face-to-face socializing. They still have to maintain an internet presence. They must stock great inventory and merchandise it in ways that captivate our imaginations. And then, they run the risk of customers who use them as a showroom only, who come to see and feel but not to buy.
We have to protect our local businesses. Think of Mr. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life”, only now it’s Amazon with its 6000 orders per minute that is threatening Bedford Falls.
Push the cat off your lap, change out of your pjs, and go out into the sunlight. Let yourself be wooed right in your own neighborhood. Shop small and make a big difference.