Sunday, April 17, 2011

Review: Robert Spector’s The Mom & Pop Store

Part history, part biography, Robert Spector’s The Mom & Pop Store is about America’s corner stores, neighborhood grocers, and other small retailers. You won’t read about these businesses in BusinessWeek or Fortune, yet their human stories are as interesting as any corporate CEO’s.

There’s Rob Kaufelt, owner of Murray’s Cheese Shop in Greenwich Village, New York City, who says: “Sameness is what the larger market is about....Clearly, what we’re celebrating is not sameness. The cheese that you’re buying today is not going to be the same next week as it was last week, because the seasons are changing. The cows are eating something different. You go to McDonald’s or Starbucks for the same thing. That’s what you’re there for. You come to us for the opposite experience of going to Starbucks.”

There’s Chuck Robinson, co-owner with his wife Dee of Village Books in Bellingham, Washington, who says: “We are not in the business of selling books. The grocery store and the drugstore are in the business of selling books. We would like to sell the books off our shelves. But our business is your coming into the store looking for a certain book or idea, and our ability to connect you with that book or idea.”

And there’s Spector’s father, who ran Spector’s Meat Market in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, for four decades. As American Dreams go, Spector’s father’s was more grit than glory, but it got the job done. Spector’s Meat Market bettered the lives of both the Spector family and a local population of loyal customers.

For Spector, a mom & pop’s role within the local community is key. When employees know customers’ names, and people stop by just to stop by, it’s a great mom & pop store. Such stores have meaning beyond buying and selling things. And that’s why Spector thinks they will never go away.

To the conventional wisdom that says the classic mom & pop is an endangered species, Spector says, “Throughout the history of retail, some new format always has been ‘killing’ the mom & pop store, but somehow it always survives.” In the past hundred years, five-and-dime chains, catalogers, department stores, deep discounters, shopping malls, category killers, and e-commerce have all hit the mom & pop economy. The great mom & pops survived by adapting, by finding new ways to keep their communities.

In profiling various mom & pop stores, Spector covers a lot of ground: around America and occasionally beyond, from meat to music to jewelery to pine furniture. Along the way, he seasons the narrative with gems like this one, about a local diner: “If Perth Amboy was an ethnic melting pot, Texas Lunch was the stove.”

My main quibble with the book is it sometimes lets the great mom & pops stand as representatives of all mom & pops. But as Spector notes, “About a third of family-owned businesses survive to the second generation.” We all have had less-than-great experiences with the other two-thirds. I suspect those businesses hold their own lessons. Maybe that’s an opportunity for Spector to write a sequel.

For now, it’s enough to enjoy The Mom & Pop Store as an alternative to the usual fare of books about big businesses and hot trends. Spector brings us back to basics, in a satisfying way.

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