Ma and Pa Stores

When economists talk of small business, they usually mean those with fifty to five hundred employees, which means something from an auto dealership to a machine shop to an independent department store. So when economic pundits tell small business people to be creative in handling their payrolls, they mean that cash flow can be difficult in a small business but payrolls still have to be met and so owners should go back to their financial backers, which can mean family members or local banks, to help them deal with a crisis. Even a smaller business, such as a three store supermarket chain, may have to make use of this expedient. But truly small businesses, which are ones with less than ten employees, and sometimes just a delivery boy and a stockman, are in a more serious permanent crisis. They don’t have much of a payroll to meet; what they have to do is pay the rent and the bills to their suppliers just to stay open at all. These businesses are, generically speaking, mom and pop outfits, and take up storefronts all up and down a business thoroughfare. They include minimarts, bodegas, 99 cent stores, nail spas, independent pharmacies, and other places where success means that enough people have stepped over the threshold to make the small purchases that will add up to meet the bills and leave something over for the store owner who is also the store operator. A way to understand such places is to put the economics of these businesses into the context of the social structure of the lives of their owners rather than look at them only as organizations which are more or less efficient ways to convey merchandise to the public than are big box stores or franchises or e-commerce.

The basic fact about the mom and pop economy is that they are not examples of entrepreneurship if what is meant by that is taking a chance that an investment in a business will have a big payoff if one has the skills, the ingenuity, and the good luck to have that happen. Rather, these businesses are established or resold so as to provide employment for their owners who lack the skills or the energy to be employed in more usual jobs. People have to invest in order just to make a living, and they may indeed turn to relatives or laboriously accumulated savings to make the investment possible.

I am acutely aware of this fact because my father had been a gainfully employed bread baker before asthma required him to give up that trade and, after a few years in what would come to be called the hospitality industry, bought a small mom and pop grocery store and a few years later moved up to being a partner in a small supermarket where he managed the fruit and vegetable section with the aid of one part time worker, the proceeds of that section, which operated on a separate cash register from the grocery or meat departments, providing him with his livelihood. He then went on to a full partnership with the two others in a slightly larger supermarket, which counts, I guess, as an improvement, and stayed there until he retired.

I would sometimes go with my father to his first little grocery store. When he arrived, he would restock the shelves from which he served the customers (it was not self-service) with the cans from Krasdale and White Rose and Del Monte which were his main merchandise. He would also scrape away any mold that had formed on the slab of cream cheese he kept in a windowed refrigerator case so that it would seem all fresh to the customers when he cut off a half pound of it for one of them. Then the people would come in and he would rush about to get what they wanted as quickly as he could, peppering his work with a few compliments or small talk but not so much as to seem a bother. The work was more arduous when he was a fruit and vegetable man because every morning he had to get boxes from the downstairs refrigerator up the escalator and cut off the rotten lettuce leafs and cull the tomatoes for the rotten ones and stack the oranges in the way only an experienced fruit man can. However long the day, there was always something else to do, and he would return to the store after dinner at home to check on whether the refrigerator or a lighting fixture had been properly repaired. He worried about paying the rent on the store and about paying the commercial carting company that took away his garbage. He hired an accountant to come in once a month to “make” his books, as he called it, which meant paying the bills and telling him if he were better off this month than he had been the month before. He did not worry, as far as I am aware, of having to pay off city health and building inspectors, who were apparently more honest than their reputation in the media would make them out to be. (Later on, on Saturdays, I would make deliveries or haul up and put away cartons in the downstairs refrigerator, but I did not have much taste for the work and was, to be honest about it, quite lazy in fulfilling my duties, thinking I had more important things to think about, like going to college. The alumnus who interviewed me at the Harvard Club asked me if I planned to go into the family business and I was flabbergasted and at a loss for words for an answer in that I couldn’t imagine how anyone would think I would want to go into that business.)

Like all very small business people, my father hated fluctuations in the economic situation, though I am not at all sure that is also true of really big business people, who can figure out a way to make money whatever is happening. A bank makes money when it lends to people when housing prices are going up and it makes money when it forecloses on mortgages when housing prices are plummeting. But a small video rental store goes out of business when Blockbuster comes along, and then that business tanks when people start watching streaming channels. My father worried about the encroachment of large scale supermarkets for his entire time as a grocer and didn’t like the coming of frozen food, which got assigned to the grocery part of the supermarket rather than to the fruit and vegetable section that he owned. Cans of peas were no longer the money makers, a few pennies here and a few pennies there. Robert Russo’s 2007 novel The Bridge of Sighs captures the atmosphere and details of running  a convenience store. Russo’s grocer thinks that the bottled milk he delivered before the coming of supermarket milk containers forced him to buy a run down convenience store so he could support his family was better than container milk. Russo also captures the idea that a very small business swallows up a life, the proprietor exhausted by his never ending responsibilities and never understanding why things were going well or badly. My father could manage an hour of television before going to bed to gather his energy for the next day.

The truth of the matter was that my father felt humiliated by his work. It was far from the quiet competence with which a bread baker worked, my father speculating to me that he might have become a draughtsman if he had been allowed to pursue his education, which he was not, recruited instead, at the end of the eighth grade, into his father’s bakery. He did not like the small talk required of him to purchase the patronage of the young matrons who came to his store, always remembering to keep just this side of flattery. He did not like how boring the work was and how long were the hours and how heavy the economic worries. He was not alone in this view. Among the other proprietors of mom and pop stores along the street there was the failed lawyer who managed to put together the money to finance a liquor store, where he spent his days waiting for customers, knowing that some would show up by evening. There were also the three sons who worked their father’s superette a few blocks away. They had been in the army and none of them made it to corporal and resented me for having better prospects. And there was the owner of the candy store on the corner of the block where I lived. I dropped in there most days to buy Milky Ways or ice cream, but the owner yelled at me, clearly feeling betrayed, because I preferred to buy my fall school supplies at the large stationery store on the avenue rather than from his smaller but perfectly adequate stock of notepads and date books. Mom and pop stores were places for losers, days filled with tedium and nights filled with anxiety.

Yet I learned, to my surprise, that there were people who were envious of my father’s position in the petit bourgeoisie. My best friend in high school had a father who worked in the garment industry who, my friend claimed, could not take off a day from work to go to meet a high school counselor about college choices, while my father did find a way to come and hear what the counselor had to say. My father did not have to answer to bosses or wait on an annual union negotiated raise. People in the petit bourgeois seemed more likely to send their kids off to college than did those in the working class even if they made no more money than they did, maybe because the petit bourgeois are a more fluid class, always hoping for better, for something more than the mere stability and assurance of an income. But that might not be true either. Everyone, fathers and sons and mothers wanted their sons to get out of the neighborhood, to move up in the world, as if that were the only thing that mattered, and one shouldn’t let girls or laziness get in the way of that, and most of the young people in my neighborhood did just that. (Girls were expected to go to secretarial school and find a husband, but that changed rather rapidly, young women becoming elementary school teachers or, in the case of those who attended my public high school, doctors and lawyers.)

So I reconceptualize the role of ma and pa stores in the economic saga of America. They are generational matters, suitable entry points into the economy of recently arrived immigrants as well as people down on their luck. The Jews who did that work when I was young are replaced by Koreans, Chinese, Indians, Hispanics, fresh Greek immigrants, who need a leg up so as to establish themselves even though they have very little capital or formal skills because they suffered the bad and at the same time fortunate break of having had to leave their home countries because of political unrest or because they could not find a way to make a living there. It’s all very by the skin of your teeth, and there is no need to romanticize it by treating ma and pa ownership as a kind of heroism, a triumph of the capitalist culture. It is just what people do, though it is also the case that people who make do do it better here than in their home countries of, say, Haiti or some sub-Saharan African country. Maybe it is the honest city inspectors.