I was driving across town the other day, listening to more radio coverage of global protests, the 99%, the possibility of Greek default, and so many other depressing things. My mind turned to the difficulty small businesses have faced in the last few years. I’m sure we’ve all seen a shop we like close down in the last few years due to the economic climate. It’s unfortunate and sometimes avoidable, but it requires action from all of us.
This unfortunate trend hit home personally this summer. While I was in high school, I worked for a store called Drum Headquarters in St. Louis, MO. It was one of the very best – if not the best – drum shops in St. Louis and remains my yardstick for every drum shop since then. Very few compare favorably. It had a great inventory, an amazing customer base who would come in and just hang and share knowledge. I hung around enough and eventually was part of the colorful crew of people who worked at Drum Headquarters.
This summer, under siege from a continuing poor economy on one front, Guitar Center on another front, and mass Internet merchants on yet another front (not very different from Guitar Center, to be honest), Drum Headquarters finally had to close.
This is part of a broader trend that is really disappointing. We tend to value low price over everything else in making purchase decisions. I certainly understand that – times are tougher than they’ve been in a long time and you need to watch your budget. However, there are intangibles that outweigh saving 10%.
These days, when I shop at Chad Sexton’s Drum City, I know that Mac & Linda are going to make sure things turn out right. In some small way, I feel like they’re part of an extended family here in LA (we salt-of-the-earth midwesterners flock together). Plus, it’s nice to swing by and pick up some necessary accessories and chat for a little bit. They’re great. If their prices are higher (they have always been more than fair to me), you can rest assured that the extra money is going towards great service. Also importantly, some of the profits go to help make it possible for great people to run a great store, versus feeding the bottom line of a corporation like Guitar Center.
Which brings me to the whiskey side of things. The big-box stores are fine — I’ve got one right around the corner from me and I’m not going to drive all the way across town to pick up a single bottle of cheap wine to be used in a sauce. But, the big-box stores also have the blandest, most uninteresting and uninspired selection. It’s the same from store to store with maybe a 10% variation. Sure, it’s cheap, but it’s cheap stuff you can find pretty much anywhere. Good luck finding an oddball Douglas Laing bottling there, and I can guarantee you’ll never find a Ladyburn there.
Meanwhile, you have guys in town (and out of town) who are curating incredible spirits departments. David Driscoll and David Girard of K&L Wines come to mind. I think Mark Schwarz is bringing together a very respectable selection at the Wine House on Cotner. There are several other notables but I want to call attention to these guys first and foremost.
The Davids are great guys. I haven’t personally met Driscoll yet but I’m sure it’ll happen. I’ve traded samples with Girard and been exposed to his considerable knowledge at tastings and in conversation. K&L is on course to become the premier spirits retailer on the west coast, if they haven’t already achieved it. They’ve spent the better part of 2011 releasing a series of absolutely ridiculous bottlings and have many more to come. Their selection is great and keeps bringing in new and interesting additions. And in the world of sad, nerdy exclusives and limited runs, they do help keep their regular customers informed. (Though the really rare stuff is first come, first serve – and I applaud them for that.)
I’ve only recently met Mark but he immediately impressed me. I readily admit I’m a Buffalo Trace fanboy; I know it’s kind of sad and embarrassing. I just happen to like most everything I’ve had from them (except Eagle Rare†). Mark shares that passion and is into the bourbon scene in a big way, with a nice selection. He’s also got ten tons of Rain Vodka, so you can guess that he gets some of the harder-to-find Buffalo Trace stuff. I’ve seen the spirits selection at the Wine House become markedly more interesting, with some off-the-beaten-path distilleries, some oddball indies but a decent selection of the go-to malts.
So I’ve spent two long-winded paragraphs on these guys. What’s my point?
These guys are like an incredible sushi chef. If you take time, talk (and more importantly, listen), you’ll strike up a casual friendship. They’ll get to know your tastes and be able to steer you towards things you like; and you can find ways to return the favor (trying things they suggest, plying them with cash or perhaps passing along an interesting sample here and there).
How novel – businesses getting to know their customers and building relationships with them over time. It’s almost like how things were in the far-off, gold-tinged memory of small-town America we claim to want to return to (before rushing off to some big-box nightmare to save 5% and not interacting with anyone until returning home).
This is not to say all small business is great. There are morons by the dozen out there who don’t know what they’re selling, or gouge customers far beyond anything that could be considered fair. There are also hucksters and slop pimps out there to be sure, but just pay attention to see who’s really listening when you talk to them. Ask your friends where they shop. Talk to people. That’s the whole point.
The relationships you can build and the rewards that can come from it – not just good prices or service or early access or anything like that – pay dividends in the quality of your life. I enjoy being able to go in and casually catch up with people who work at the places I frequent. I like knowing that we’re all in this crazy geopolitical, socioeconomic drama together.
If we as a society have a common belief that people are less friendly and the world is less personal than it used to be, then it’s our duty to change it. The first step is to open up, be friendly and personable, and start frequenting places where you’ll be able to strike up a friendship that will last a long time. If enough of us go about things this way, then perhaps we’ll see small business emerge even stronger in the next few years.
†Yes, I’m going to call out Eagle Rare at most opportunities. Consider it part of the official style guide for S&I. I reserve the right to introduce coöperate at some point in the future.