The Tenacity of The Little Guy.

A national video store chain has a storefront just down the street from our apartment. It monopolizes the corner space of a smallish kind-of strip mall that holds a little convenience store, a pizza joint, a chinese restaurant and a nail salon. It’s a franchise chain I think was quite aptly named when it went public back in the later 80s, because its appearance in a small town or neighborhood could literally bust up blocks of local homegrown business. Could send smaller independent stores into financial tailspins because of its access to electronics and video game rentals, its strength of franchise resource. That chain started as a small independent store, too, and grew over 20+ years to near megalith status. The owners adopted gregarious new approaches to home entertainment marketing, and suffered through internal struggles like every company. It’s a success story, unless you take into consideration the independent businesses caught in the swath of destruction left in the wake of national and then global expansion. Such is the nature of business, I suppose, and they were very up front about it. Block buster. “Competition Buster” just doesn’t have that same cool consonance tripping off the tongue. Marketing is everything.

About two miles away from me is Tom Video…an absolutely not-national video store. You know the kind…. Floor uneven, carpet that could be of the indoor/outdoor varietal, a musty smell you can’t quite put your finger on…. It’s cheaper to rent from Tom, though the selection is not necessarily reliable. Tom Video has no national expansion goals. They’ve had some change in management, I think. Possibly a new owner in the last couple years. It’s hard to say for sure without specific confirmation from one of the new batch of teenagers that seem to be holding the fort down. Tom has kept lean and mean over its lifespan, and has thus far held out against the specter of the bigger, fancier national franchise store a dozen blocks away.
And now the competition buster is closing its doors. Everything must go…previously viewed movies for $5 or less. I wonder if someone from Tom Video will come over and clean house? Grab up the deals to fill out any empty spots on Tom’s shelves? The big national store is closing, while the little unattractive independent store keeps chugging along.
Husband and I were out yesterday to see a movie and walked a long deserted block from the car to the Highland Park Theatre. Stretching the length of that long block was a massive vacant storefront. I asked Husband what used to be there and he said it was the Highland Park location for Megalith Bookstore. Just one of hundreds nationwide and almost 30 in the Chicago area that have closed (or are in the process of closing) over the last few months and year. All that square footage, all that real estate now as empty as the video store down the street will be in a matter of weeks. Megalith Bookstore also started as a little independent adventure and grew and grew and grew over years and across time zones. As it swelled during the 70s, 80s and 90s its resources allowed it to dwarf Mom-and-Pop storefronts and drive those small businesses out or gobble them up for absorption into the Megalith organism.
I’ve been thinking about these two simple examples of that thing that has happened, can happen and will continue to happen. A business opens with a certain amount of game plan and resource. It grows, or doesn’t. It adapts to challenge and change and upheaval, or it doesn’t. It survives its competition, or it shuts its doors. The specifics of a business’s journey are as potentially varied as they are more often common place. Each of these companies I’ve mentioned here have shared certain challenges. None of them…indeed not one business in this hemisphere…has been unaffected by the teeter-totter of the economy. Not a single book/video/music store, movie theatre, newspaper publisher/kiosk or library hasn’t been forced into a defensive posture by this wacky Internet. So how is it that tiny little half-stinky Tom Video maintains when mega-video store files for Chapter 11? How can Women & Children First bookstore and The Book Cellar ( continue to attract new customers when Megalith Bookstore has to liquidate and hire claims lawyers?
And in the mean time…how many small businesses were steamrolled by the Giant Corporate Whateveritis before that behemoth finally noticed it was dying a death of 1,000 cuts? Could any of those demolished little businesses come back now and fill some of the vacant square footage the behemoth is leaving behind?
Yeah, yeah, yeah…Giant Corporate Whatevers bring jobs to towns and neighborhoods. Yes, if those steamrolled small businesses could have adapted or adjusted, they might have survived the onslaught. It’s the nature of business. But I like the little guy. I root for the small businessperson. It’s what built our society. I don’t think there’s a thing wrong with a business growing and expanding and succeeding. But we know there are valuable lessons to learn from what’s happening all over the country. The tenacious small business continues to make like a border terrier…continues to keep scrappin’ while the bigger and more muscular great dane falls to a shorter life expectancy and joint disease. The trick is to stay flexible, to stay focused, to not spread resources too far and too thin.
Maybe the indoor/outdoor carpet helps? Maybe it’s that crazy, illusive thing called Customer Service? I’m sure it all depends on a case-by-case basis.
At least the megaliths can keep some lawyers working for a bit longer. All while the little guys just keep on scrappin’.

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