Small store, big impact

A delivery person came to my door recently and dropped off a small potted Guzmania plant and an envelope addressed to my wife.

My first thought was, "Oh great, what family anniversary did I forget this time?"

In fact, the gift was sent by Mike and Kim, owners of a local clothing store where our family shops. "Thank you again for your business," the enclosed message read. "It is very much appreciated!"

The store is where my wife goes when she needs something nice to wear at a writers' conference or other special occasion.

And "nice" is not a synonym for "extravagant." It means something better than you'd get off the rack at a big-box chain retailer - and I don't think that attitude makes me an advocate of class warfare.

Mike and Kim have worked hard to build and maintain a base of loyal customers. The apparel and accessories they sell are superior quality and tastefully stylish. When my spouse is wearing a jacket or other garment from their place, my first thought when I see her wearing the item is, "Gee, that looks really nice!"

But the store is not just about selling clothes. Many small businesses add value to communities that can't be measured solely in monetary terms.

Mike and Kim are active participants in efforts to increase school funding and other local issues, and it's not just a calculated PR ploy. They're serious about keeping their unique commercial thread woven into the fabric of local society.

One of the mantras I hear often when pundits are debating the ups and downs of our economy is that companies must either "grow or die."

This has an ominous tone for people like Mike and Kim, because they have no desire to run a clothing empire.

But since the store has been going strong for many years, it's obviously possible to reach some kind of commercial equilibrium that supports a small staff, annual profit, and continued daily operation.

Across this country, small entrepreneurs manage to succeed on a scale that will never be the focus of any realty TV show.

Not everyone aspires to be the next Donald Trump, but that fact doesn't indicate a character flaw of lack of motivation. As a consumer, I feel added motivation to support Mike and Kim because of their genuine interest in what is happening in the world beyond their front display window.

The Guzmania plant was a thank-you to my spouse for bringing in a new customer. This friend needed something nice to wear on a trip and found a jacket that was just right.

Later she sent us an e-mail message that said, "I really liked the store and the people there. I will visit again."

Note to President Bush: Many of your speeches have stressed the importance of small businesses to the American way of life.

If you're ever hosting a media event to support these folks, have someone on your staff call me to make some travel arrangements.

I think Mike and Kim should be up there on the podium with you.

Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.

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