Mom & pop stores–the little independent family-run corner grocery, hardware store, café, bakery, or barber shop–are, like local farmers’ markets, neighborhood gems just waiting to be rediscovered by a new generation. Some are the old-fashioned kind, limping along in the recession but fostering a friendly atmosphere and clientèle. Others mix old-fashioned personal service with cutting-edge specialties. Within five minutes of my house are five worth spending time in.
The bike shop at the other end of my block sells and fixes everything from used kids’ bikes with training wheels (which they’ll adjust for you) to the fancy $4000-plus professional racing bikes (ditto). Around the corner, beyond the Starbuck’s, is a young-chic type all-day café with arty rectangular plates, pretty good coffee–and outlets for every patron’s laptop. Down the street is a British pub owned by the chef and his wife, with the world’s crispest, most astonishing fish & chips and dozens of artisan beers on tap. No outlets here, but you can play darts on the bar side of the pub. The coffee shop across from my daughter’s school hosts tutoring sessions and keeps a frequent customer card file for regulars as well as a shelf of books you can buy or just borrow while catching a break. And the fifth, my personal favorite, is an Armenian corner grocery with great deals, lots of unusual ingredients and spices, actual ripe tomatoes and one or another family member always willing to discuss the best way to cook something–or debate the merits of the latest Rose Parade.
These businesses are always under siege from the chain restaurants and big box price cutters, which pop up and then close suddenly whenever something better comes along for the long-distance investors, undercut the locals while they’re here, and leave a trail of mistreated minimum-wage employees and other forms of exploitation in their wake. And yet often the mom & pop stores offer a better deal, unique merchandise, and certainly better service.
Most important is the way local shops change the way we interact when we come in to buy something. The owners treat everyone like a neighbor or a member of their congregation (in the case of the corner grocery, they usually are). The staff are usually the sons and daughters and grandchildren of the owners. Even shy customers come in ready to say hello, ask questions, compliment the new light fixtures, complain about the state budget cuts or the new parking meters near the center of town and generally catch up on the latest. They don’t ignore or avoid the staff the way everyone does at the big box stores, and they don’t feel ignored or pestered either. Kibbitzing and schmoozing are almost lost arts everywhere else, but the better mom & pop businesses have a way of restoring that sense of belonging to neighborhood shoppers.
So it’s with pleasure that I recommend two fairly recent books on the mom & pop phenomenon, with a side dish of a newly released French film.
Dough (2006), by Mort Zachter, is a well-told cautionary tale about working for family, especially if that family’s roots are in the Great Depression. Zachter, a former tax lawyer, learned the hard way that his uncles’ family bread business wasn’t exactly what he’d assumed as a kid. One day a phone call from his uncles’ stockbroker revealed that while his uncles almost never closed the shop, lived together like paupers in a dingy run-down tenement apartment, and certainly never paid Zachter’s mother anything for helping out, they had been sitting on a multimillion dollar account balance for decades. How they came by such wealth and why they never used it to better their lives or anyone else’s in the family is the riddle Zachter works to solve. Although there’s a bitter line of frustration running through Zachter’s account of his uncles and the way they worked, his fondness for them is evident in the details of the shop and their apartment, the jokes and family table arguments. The tension between his adult perspective and the uncles he recalls from his youth, when he too worked at the bread store, keeps the story fresh.
More recent is The Mom & Pop Store: How the Unsung Heroes of the American Economy are Surviving and Thriving(2009) by Robert Spector. Spector, the son of a New Jersey butcher, is a business journalist whose previous books cover the big box phenomenon and Nordstrom’s culture of customer service. In this book he starts with his own story but then branches out to survey mom & pop stores all over the country and in far-flung cities from London to Tokyo. His objectives are to profile the current trends and capture the qualities the successful ones share. He manages to interview quite a number of people who grew up much the way he did, and many others who started their own independent businesses as a way to flourish at the cutting edge and still be part of the neighborhood.
One place Spector doesn’t seem to have gone is Paris, a curious omission in context. Paris is full of family-run groceries, cheese shops, bakeries, bookshops, chocolatiers, hardware stores, and especially restaurants that have been running successfully for so long that closing them is close to unthinkable. If any city can be considered expert at the mom & pop at all levels, surely this is the place. Two of the most eminent were recently featured in the NY Times—Taillevent and La Tour d’Argent, sometime rivals for best traditional restaurant in Paris. Both are now being run by children or grandchildren of the original proprietors, and both new owners are trying new strategies to maintain traditional quality, stay solvent and relevant, and keep a foothold against the newer wave of Michelin-rated wonders that have stolen some of their thunder in the past few years.
And that brings us to the side-dish: The Grocer’s Son (Le fils de l’épicier), which my husband brought home one evening on a whim. One of a crop of good small French movies to come to the US this year, it’s available on DVD and worth a look. One of a village grocer’s two sons has stayed in his hometown and opened up a hair salon; the other, the black sheep of the family, has run off to the big city (Lyon, I think) to get a life. Unfortunately he has just as hard a time working as a waiter–distinct lack of people skills, his two best friends tell him. When his father winds up in the hospital with a heart attack, the city son comes home to help out and discovers what it means to be part of a rural community: extending credit by the week to those without exact change, selling tins of peas to aging and very deaf parishioners, accepting farm eggs and lengthy reminiscences for dry goods, making up with the crotchety neighbor he used to pull pranks on. By the end, even his father admits he’s (finally) doing a pretty good job in spite of himself. Of course, it wouldn’t be a French movie without food, humor, secrets, bitter irony, faulty vehicular maintenance and some form of obligatory sex scene, so check it out for yourself and get the full experience.
Filed under: books, Eating out, Food Politics, frugality, history, movies, shopping | Tagged: buying local, Dough: A Memoir, family-owned businesses, French films, French restaurants, La Tour d'Argent, local businesses, memoirs, mom & pop, Mort Zachter, movies, neighborhood shops, Paris, Robert Spector, Taillevent, The Grocer's Son, The Mom & Pop Store |