Recently I met a guy named Otto Leuschel. Otto’s got a fascinating story to tell about his journey from vice-president of the northeastern division of Whole Foods to becoming “your local grocer on Main Street.” Otto is just one of many small-business owners who are betting that enough of us are fed up with the big-box era that we’ll choose to forgo the mind-numbing experience of football-field–sized selling floors and take our dollars and pennies, and spend them in support of our local shops.
Four years ago, Otto Leuschel landed in tiny Germantown (population less than 2,000), a down-on-its-heels, trying-to-pull-itself-back-up village about two hours north of New York City. Since then, Otto’s been putting in fifty-hour work weeks and draining his savings, betting that his down-home grocery store, Otto’s Market, and Germantown Variety, his new variety store just across the street, will fit the bill for people who are tired of navigating the endless aisles of the big boxes to find a jar of mayonnaise, a spool of thread, or a ball of twine.
Otto’s business model is old, yet new. It embraces local producers and quality, competitively priced, everyday goods made in the U.S.A. Otto’s your man if you want to meet the quintessential salesperson who exudes confidence in his brand. He believes that our communities will be better places when they’re bustling with the vibrancy and personal connections that are the by-product of small, owner-operated shops.
Still, as a no-nonsense, bottom-line kind of guy, Leuschel concedes that the doubters, the naysayers, and, of course, the corporate bigwigs are trying their best to convince us that the little guy (metaphorically speaking, because Otto is a big guy) long ago lost the battle. Before buying into the self-serving gloom and doom and assigning owner-operated shops a plot in the land of nostalgia, Otto recommends we take a hard look at a bit of history—specifically, the story of corporate giant Sears, Roebuck & Co.—and then decide for ourselves if today’s big-box giants are unstoppable.
For almost a century, Sears, Roebuck seemed untouchable
Is Otto right? Does the present replicate the past? It certainly seems so. Sears, Roebuck was, after all, the granddaddy of the mail orders and big boxes. Sears was the Walmart and Amazon of its time rolled into one. In 1888, when founder Richard Warren Sears came up with the idea of delivering merchandise directly to people’s homes and printed and distributed his first catalog, retail warfare erupted almost immediately.
After all, at the time Sears’ mail-order pricing undercut the pricing of rural shopkeepers. (Sound familiar?) Not surprisingly, local shopkeepers were outraged. The outrage was so intense that rural newspapers joined the fray and refused to carry Sears’ ads. And that wasn’t the end of it. Shop owners even enlisted children and handed out free movie passes, and sometimes a ten-cent bribe, for every Sears catalog they turned in. Some communities went even further and staged bonfires that sent reams of sewing-machine and bicycle ads up in smoke.
You see, the Ottos of those days and the communities they served understood that Sears, Roebuck was a threat, not only to their individual livelihoods, but also to traditional community bonds.
And where is Sears today? The story hasn’t ended happily. In the last year alone, the once-dominant retail giant has shuttered 172 stores.
Big boxes have diminished our sense of community
What about our sense of community today? For those of us who live outside the largest urban centers, the big-box model has removed the search for our daily necessities from the centers of our communities to the perimeters. The social consequences have been devastating. When we drive to the magnet Walmart or Target or Lowe’s, we forfeit the daily interactions with our neighbors that used to be the norm. For generations, personal relationships and community identity were forged, as individuals pushed open the doors of small shops and encountered their neighbors inside.
Those kinds of community connections were built on the accumulation of small familiarities. The face behind the counter was on a first-name basis with every customer and their dog. He/she knew what kind of milk the regulars drank, what newspapers they read, their favorite ice cream flavors. Shop owners knew what kinds of gifts their customers bought for special occasions. Neighbors understood just enough about each other’s beliefs and political persuasions that they instinctively honed in on which gossipy tidbit or news item they could safely talk about, or which to avoid at all costs. Local concerns and important community decisions were shared and hashed out ad nauseam while waiting for the butcher to wrap a cut of meat.
The assumption is that those days and those relationships are a thing of the past, and that the way we pursue the purchase of our day-to-day necessities has been channeled, now and forever, into the depersonalized, data-tracked shopping universe.
The numbers tell one story, but our desires tell another
It’s true that by looking solely at the numbers, you’d have to conclude that the neighborhood shop is becoming as extinct as nightly sit-down dinners or week nights without homework. After all, employees of a single family—yes, that would be the Waltons—unlock the automated doors of more than 4,600 retail outlets. The Walton empire alone employs more than 1.4 million people in towns and cities across the U.S.
In a recent New York Times article, Walmart spokesperson Brooke Buchanan proudly underscored her employer’s market dominance when she declared that every month, more than 60 percent of Americans shop at Walmart locations. That’s a big chunk of us out there, searching for the lowest prices on everything we need, and lots we don’t.
On the other hand, if you take a close look at the small towns and villages of New York’s Hudson Valley—the place I call home—you’ll find a very different narrative. Stubborn, individualistic entrepreneurs like Otto Leuschel have become the primary drivers of economic revitalization in historic towns and villages that hold pride of place across the northeastern landscape. It seems these intrepid businesspeople—and those who support them and seek out the charm and interpersonal relationships their businesses foster—just didn’t get the memo. And if they did, they’ve chosen to tear it up and ignore it in their pursuit of a retro business model and a model of community identity that’s worked pretty darned well for generations.
So, if you want to see firsthand how the match-up between corporate big boxes and the small entrepreneur is playing out, seek out the owner-operated shops in small towns and villages in your neck of the woods, or come to mine or Otto Leuschel’s. Experience firsthand what your grandparents took for granted, and then decide what kind of community you’d prefer to live in. Then take the next step, and put your money where your desire is.