America: Knowing people is key to surviving tough times

Visiting America’s Northwest software empires left our jaws agape at the Jaguar, Rolls Royce and Lamborghini dealerships lining the road that leads to Microsoft’s sprawling world headquarters in Redmond, Washington. So, as we’ve moved south along the Pacific coast, we’ve been talking with small business people about how they’re surviving these tough times.

The hulks of boarded up restaurants and other failed businesses pepper the coastline, but there are lots of thriving merchants including fishing boats that pulled into the Florence, Oregon, docks one morning. A steady stream of families made their way along the network of wooden docks to purchase fresh catch, weighed and wrapped for them on deck.

“Some of us are surviving this year, but it hurts my soul as well as my entrepreneurial spirit to watch other business owners around me go under,” said Carrie Yano, owner of The Wine Place in Yachats, an up-scale town that calls itself “The Gem of the Oregon Coast.”

When one local business fails, that hurts the whole community of retailers, Yano said. “Most small businesses do fail in their first year anyway and, in this economy, it’s even harder. In a town like Yachats that means people come into my shop all the time with questions like: What happened to X, Y or Z store in town? Why isn’t that restaurant open anymore? It brings a sad spirit into my store that I hope will be a happy, safe place customers will enjoy visiting.”

On Florence’s historic main street, about 20 miles south of Yachats, Glenna Martin just opened a new bookstore and card shop on March 1, called Periwinkle Station. She only agreed to talk with us, “if you promise not to say I wasn’t very smart opening a business in this economy.”

In fact, Martin is a veteran retailer who has run small shops in several locations in the Northwest over the years. “Survival depends, first, on location,” she said. “I’ve got a perfect spot here on the main street. And, second, you’ve got to know your customers and what they want.

“Every book in this store was selected because I’ve read it and I know people will have interest in it. I don’t carry the more expensive hardbacks and I keep the best sellers around longer than people can find them on the shelves at Target. I can help customers pick out the right book for their interests,” she said. “I also do a lot of business in children’s books, especially pop-up books. Most bookstores don’t like to sell pop-up books because they get beat up in the store before they’re ever sold. I’ve solved that by keeping them all behind the counter and I demonstrate the books as I talk to the people.”

A couple wearing tourist baseball caps approached Martin’s counter with several choices of vintage candies from a specialty snack section in her store. The woman held up a pack of Black Jack gum. “I haven’t had this in years,” she said. “Good to find someone still selling it.”

 “We share the same memories, don’t we?” Martin said to the couple and chuckled. “Did you see all the old candies we’ve got over there?”

The couple nodded and took a long second look at the candy display before leaving the shop.

At the Wine Place, Yano sells bottles like Martin sells books: She knows her customers and what they’ll buy. Over the past year, she has maintained her revenue by lowering the average price of a bottle of wine. “I have to work harder, because that’s more wine coming in, more inventory and shelving and bottles sold, but I’m making the same amount of money because I know that, right now, people want less-expensive brands of good wine,” she said. Her mainstays this year include Oregon wines priced at about $10 a bottle, compared with earlier years when customers routinely splurged on more expensive wines.

“To survive now, you’ve got to understand what’s going on in your customers’ lives and what’s going on in the country that’s affecting all of us,” Yano said. “I’ve been here only six years, yet I’m already an old-timer now in Yachats because of other business failures.

“We’ve all got to help each other. Whenever a new business opens in this area, I do everything I can to send people over. Every time I’ve got one of my own customers at the cash register, ringing up a sale, I will say to them: ‘You know there’s a new business in town. It’s called X or Y. Stop by their shop and, when you do, please say hello from me.’ We have to realize we’re all in this together.”

(Photos and story by Editor David Crumm and his son Benjamin who are devoting 40 days and 9,000 miles to circling the United States and talking with Americans about what divides and what could unite us.)

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