BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

The Heart of America ...

I've had a bit of a run of “good luck” in's “Early Reviewer program, having been matched up with review copies of 10 books over the past 13 months. As I pretty much only read non-fiction, the selection of titles that I might request is somewhat limited (out of the hundred or so books offered each month), but I find it interesting what is deemed (by “the Almighty Algorithm”) suitable for my library, as it has varied quite a bit of late, especially considering that by “pure chance” the odds would run only 3-4% for “winning” one of these. This is the long way about to note that Robert Spector's The Mom & Pop Store: True Stories from the Heart of America came to be in my “to be read” pile via this program, rather than being something that I specifically picked up.

Those who have been reading my main blog over the past decade will know that I come from an entrepreneurial background, and, while I've not operated in a retail environment since a high-school pharmacy stocking job, the stories in this book certainly have a deep resonance with me. The author is the son of a butcher from Perth Amboy, New Jersey; his grand-father being a Jewish immigrant from the Ukraine who arrived here in 1910, his family only able to join him a decade later. Like many subsequent generations of early immigrants, Spector did not care for the meat business, and went off to college and became a writer and speaker of some significant repute (see, but the memories were there, and in his 60's he made something of a pilgrimage, not to the physical sites of his youth, but to the “family business” culture which permeated it.

The first section of the book is about his family, their environment, and their business, much of it being a window into a quite different era of food production and distribution (while his family was most insistent on the best quality and the fairest dealings, there was quite an eye-opening story of another vendor in the market who sold “honey” which was cooked up at home out of sugar water and some caramel coloring!).

The second section of the book looks at the independent merchant, from its roots in ancient history, on through the modern era. Each point is illustrated with a story of a different small business operation, from delis, to bodegas, to carpet companies, ice cream shops, hardware stores, restaurants, and even a Japanese tea merchant. Spector traveled the world to speak to these dozens of “mom and pop” operators and get down their stories. Some of these are tales of survival, a few are of substantial successes, all of them speak of grit, determination and passion.

The last section is about how small businesses like these become an integral part of the communities in which they operate. Here the author returns to previous subjects, and looks at new situations such as small business trying to restore a sense of normalcy in their neighborhoods in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He also returns the narrative to a personal level and takes a look at “mom and pop” businesses he knows in his current home in the Seattle area. These have a bit different tone, as he's doing some degree of “hometown bragging”, but using that as a specific case of what can be generalized to any area. In this section he also “takes off the gloves” to some extent to stand up for the entrepreneurial sector. This particularly stood out to me:
If there's one thing officials of local and state governments enjoy more than giving incentives to big companies, it's hassling small businesses with lots of rules and regulations. Clearly, these elected officials and bureaucrats have never run a business. Too often, city, county, state, and federal taxing entities spend their time trying to squeeze money out of the most vulnerable contributing taxpayers: mom & pop stores. And if they're not after the money, they are trying to find ways to control commerce in the form of licenses. According to an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, more than 20 percent of the U.S. workforce is required to get a permit to do their jobs – as compared to a mere 4.5 percent in the 1950s.
As a child of entrepreneurs, the spouse of an entrepreneur, and a one-time entrepreneur myself, the stories and underlying messages in The Mom & Pop Store spoke deeply to me, and even inspired me to at least fantasize about businesses that I might begin (albeit not today, I'm too deep into this unemployment vortex to not be looking for the stability of a paycheck). If you have small businesses in your family, you will most certainly find similar points of resonance in here, and all others should probably read this just for the perspective it gives on this often-ignored (although substantial) segment of our economy.

While this is not new new (the hardcover came out last year), the paperback edition is, and should be available out there via your local “mom & pop” book vendor (or, if none of those have survived by you, the big chain stores). Both Amazon and have it at a discount, and the new/used guys have “like new” copies for as little as a couple of bucks (plus, of course the $3.99 shipping), so this can be had for a very reasonable price. Again, because of my background, this had a significant appeal to me, and I'm hoping that this will be something that everybody would consider picking up.

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Tags: book review
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