Why the mom and pop shop is surviving

Robert Spector, author of "The Mom & Pop Store: How the Unsung Heroes of the American Economy Are Surviving and Thriving."

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

TESS VIGELAND: Small businesses are the key to an economic recovery. We hear it from economists, not to mention the president himself. But businesses with just a handful of workers have to have a little something extra to succeed. Just up the freeway from our studios, we found a family store that's been offering up that something-something for more than 100 years. John Nese is the sole proprietor.

John Nese: We're at Galco's Soda Pop Stop. I've been around since I was about five or six. My nose fit over those little red bricks out front.

His dad ran the place as a neighborhood grocery. There's an Italian deli in the back, and Nese now wanders the isles in a red apron, helping customers find what they need. But about 20 years ago, big chain stores moved in and Nese had to change the business to survive.

Nese: My father had already turned over operations over to me. And I'm going, "If we're going to go broke, might as well go broke being happy and doing something that I like." So I went out, I found 25 little brands of sodas and put them on the shelf. People would come in and look and say, "Well, what are you doing with all those old brands that don't sell?" And when I got to 250, it's "where are you finding them?" Right now, we have about 500 different kinds of sodas. Most everything is family-run companies, and I'm really happy with that.

Customer 1: We got a birch beer and this vanilla soda.

Customer 2: I have a caribbean cream soda. It sounds really good. It's coconut with a "gentle brew of java vanilla," whatever that means.

Customer 3: Inca cola from Peru. I haven't had it since I was in Peru.

Customer 4: Manhattan Special Espresso Coffee Soda.

Customer 5: I've got chocolate, root beer, cucumber, orange. I was really upset that the banana's out, though.

There's something almost romantic -- definitely nostalgic -- about places like Galco's. Writer Robert Spector set out to capture and understand just what that is. Galco's is one of more than 40 businesses profiled in his book, "The Mom & Pop Store." Welcome to the show.

Robert Spector: Thanks very much, Tess. Good to be here.

Vigeland: You say people always smiled when you told them you were writing this book. What do you think is so appealing about the mom and pop store?

Spector: Well, the mom and pop store is a universal. It's something that everybody can relate to. And either they had it in their own family -- in my case, I came from an immigrant family who opened up a butcher shop -- or they have their favorite place when they were growing up. But more importantly their favorite place today -- because my book is not about nostalgia, it's about today.

Vigeland: You mention your parents' butcher shop, and you know, you must be nostalgic about that one. What was that like growing up?

Spector: I'm not even one iota nostalgic about it.

Vigeland: No?

Spector: I worked in this family butcher shop in Perth Amboy, N.J.-- an outdoor market, where it gets cold in the winter and hot in the summer. And Saturday was the big market day, and I wanted to be playing with my friends. I didn't want to be slicing cold cuts or sweeping sawdust. Part of the context of this book was years later I realized all the lessons I learned when I didn't think I'd been paying attention.

Vigeland: And what were some of those?

Spector: The most basic thing was honesty. If a customer had a question about the weight of the pork chops, my father would say, "Well, come over to the other side of the counter and take a look at the scale and you'll see how much it weighs." When you're an independent entrepreneur, all you have is your good name. Therefore, you need to be an honest, honorable person in order to survive. Very simple stuff, but very important stuff.

Vigeland: You know, you also profile some very well-known companies that started out as small family stores. The biggest them, of course, Wal-Mart, which was a five-and-dime in Bentonville, Ark. Is that mom-and-pop feeling basically impossible to maintain once business does start to grow?

Spector: It's even hard to do when there's more than one business -- more than one store, I should say, much less building up a chain. And you know, when I mentioned before, I don't take necessarily a nostalgic or romantic look at these stores. Some stores are meant to exist for a certain period of time to serve the family, such as my family store, and others are meant to go on and do other things.

Vigeland: You actually talk in the book about how mom and pop stores are doing actually pretty well in this recession. Why do you think that is?

Spector: Well, they have the opportunity to make changes. And one of the things that identifies all successful mom and pop stores is the ability to adapt to change. People have been writing the obituary for the mom and pop store for more than a century. I cited an article from the New York Times from 1904, essentially saying the same thing. But they've always been able to deal with shopping malls and chain stores and big box stores. But you look around you, they are everywhere. They're immigrants who decided to open up a business, because it's a labor-intensive business, it helps to employ lots of family members, or it's people who have dropped out of the corporate world and decided that rather than trading hedge funds, they'd rather use grandma's cupcake recipe and open up a little cupcake shop and do their own thing.

Just to give you a quick example: I interviewed the woman who owns my local coffee shop, it's called "Hotwire Online Coffeehouse" in Seattle. Lora Lewis, the owner, used to be in the insurance business; she was an executive. And I said, "Lora, opening up a coffeehouse in Seattle is not exactly the most revolutionary idea that I've ever heard."

Vigeland: When there's one every half-block already.

Spector: That's right, that's right. And she said, "That's right, but I did my due diligence and I looked at the neighborhood and the market and I thought that a coffeehouse with my interpretation could work." And it in fact does, and I end the book at Hotwire Coffee, and I even took my author photo outside of Hotwire Coffee. Because, not only does she serve good coffee, but she's a community representative and just bringing people together and that's what makes her particular vision a success for her community, for our community.

Vigeland: Robert Spector is the author of "The Mom & Pop Store: How the Unsung Heroes of the American Economy Are Surviving and Thriving." Thanks so much for sharing your story with us today.

Spector: Thanks a lot, Tess. I appreciate it.

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