Elegy for a small business

When the press and politicians talk about the mythical Small Business Person, what they often mean in reality is the owner of a company with dozens or even hundreds of employees, a definition that ignores the vast majority of small businesses. The ones I consider true small businesses tend to have less than 10 or 20 employees, operate almost purely locally, and are integrated into their local communities. The people running these businesses are not backed by venture capital, do not define success by their “exit” via buyout, and will never be featured in a hyperventilating column in Fast Money about the latest privacy-stealing gizmo. They’re also not idealized exemplars of Jeffersonian virtue. They’re simply people, more or less like everyone else, with the exception that their entire life is tied up in what to everyone else would be simply a job.

This commingling of life and work is what makes the decision to end a small business an intense and uniquely painful one. Every circumstance is different – in some cases it’s a decision borne out of necessity, while in others it’s a decision about rebalancing life and work (as mine was). But whatever the path, the end hits you in a way that you can’t foresee.

I’m reminded of all of this because one of my favorite local businesses is closing today, and it’s a great loss. It’s especially hard to accept because I’m so impressed by the owner. We first met Celeste several years ago when we adopted our dog, which led to weekend walks to the park where Jersey City had set up one of its first farmer’s markets. Celeste had recently started baking and quickly became a mainstay of both the Saturday market and our weekend rounds. Of course we were reacting to her kindness and warmth, but I was also impressed by watching her build a dedicated group of customers who, like us, came back week after week to say hello, pick up some great food, and talk about the week.

After a year or so, Celeste announced in passing that she had leased a space in the neighborhood, and that she was already cooking out of the larger kitchen there. I don’t remember how she handled the opening of her space (she is fond of parties) but it didn’t take long for it to become part of the neighborhood. Before long, she was hosting a monthly communal dinner, rotating exhibits by local artists, local musicians’ nights, kids’ baking classes, and a host of other activities geared to creating both great food and a sense of community around enjoying it. What impressed me most about this was that Celeste was doing exactly the kind of thing the area needs – making an excellent product (she is an incredible baker) while also creating a sort of center for the people who enjoy it.

Unfortunately, between the general economy and the weeks of downtime imposed by Sandy, this hasn’t been enough. I heard from Celeste just before Christmas that the bakery was closing after a two-year run. It was hard to know how to respond as she told me – I could see her looking around her space, especially the kitchen full of new equipment, and the look in her eyes took me back to my own decisions about my own office. Although I decided to pull out and downsize for other reasons, I will always remember the day I sold the last piece of furniture, collected my files, took down the sign in the hallway and locked the door for the last time. There’s just no way to explain that moment of loss to someone who hasn’t been through it. The closest I can come is to describe it as a kind of unobserved death, and a reminder that everything we do in this world – no matter how passionate we are about it – ends. Schumpeter was right about a lot of things, but wrong about this. Sometimes destruction is just destruction.

So next time you read some anonymous idiot on Yelp bitching about something costing $1 too much though it is “definately tasty,” or you pass an empty storefront where that Chinese place used to be, or you read about some allegedly small business with 400 employees, spare a thought for the real small business owners. Here’s hoping for a much better 2013 for all of them.

Edit – Slight copy edit 12/31/12

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