We talk about loving small businesses, and the uniqueness of special local places. The specialness of the local.

The Preciousness of Local Spaces

Chris grew up in Berkeley, with lots of local shops and unique spaces.

Kathryn remembers living in a small town where she could walk to the little shops when she was a kid. Walk to the library, the five and dime. See the people, and feel like she was part of something. But when she moved to suburbia, it felt very sterile. It was wonderful to know people in the town, in the shops, and have some sort of relationship with them. You felt a sense of community. A sense of exchange. Each little business contributed to the feeling of having fun things to do, good things to do, useful things to do. All the little relationships were woven up into that.

When the Wall-Mart comes in, it’s heartbreaking the way it could take away so much of that, suck it out. How did our culture become so profit-centric, to the exclusion of everything else? And so immediate results-centric?

Impoverishment of the Spirit

Yancey Strikler published a great book last year, This Could Be Our Future. This is where I learned how Milton Friedman had contributed to an acceleration of this bottom-line-only thinking, in the 1970’s and 80’s. The idea—the religion, you might almost say—was that anything that improved the bottom line was good for the business; and therefore good for the economy; and ipso facto, good for the world. At this time, big companies were doing away with pensions, long-term relationships with employees, with towns, and becoming more abstracted entities, more divorced from human ties, and more wholly driven by an abstract logic of shareholder profit.

Is there a relationship between the impoverishment of the spirit, that comes out of a religion of maximizing profit at all costs, and the spiritually impoverished people who go along with it? I think about junk food: it has high caloric content, but low nutritional density. So you just keep wanting more, and aren’t sure why it does not nourish you. (Is it possible that there is a relationship between the obesity epidemic in the United States, and the anomie created by the suburban sprawl-ification, the big box-ification of America? I think there is.) As Eric Hoffer said, you can never get enough, of what you don’t need.

We have created a top tier who has an enormous amount; a middle tier who have some, but are feeling more and more tenuous. And then you have a lower tier that is growing. When you are struggling, it’s hard to think about stopping at the artisanal cheese shop, or buying the fancy bread for six bucks, when there’s one on sale for two. Yet, while the lower tier are more “at the mercy” of these structures—are they really bringing optimal satisfaction to those at the top? Why do people who are at the top financially, seem so often to hunger for more and more? How much do they need to spend before they consider that they have “arrived”? Are they sublimating some needs with money? (For more on this, see our previous conversation.)

A thing I often wonder is: how much of our destruction of the world is brought about, simply because we are working hard, to get things that don’t produce much satisfaction?

Re-Nourishing the World through Seeing the Richness of Personal Business

I think there is great potential in looking more deeply into what is truly valuable. There is no one answer for everyone. But I see commonalities, that are missed. How much of the healing that we need as a people, is related to stopping doing damage to our planet? I feel it is inextricably connected. You can never get enough of what you don’t need, and when you strive endlessly for it, the addiction has consequences. All addictions have consequences.

So, applying happiness to business starts to look like a pretty good recipe for the health of society! What if the healing of the rifts between personal satisfaction, economic self-sufficiency, our longing to do our best work—what if this was actually a part of the recipe to heal our fractured relationship with the future?

Small business owners don’t often realize how much a community needs them. Kathryn said in San Francisco when the pandemic began, people spontaneously started GoFundMe campaigns to help save their favorite places. The business would often say, “we had no idea how much we meant to you.”

I had the same experience years ago, when a coffee shop called the Edible Complex, in the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland, closed down. They put a little sign on the door saying they were closing. Spontaneously, countless people posted notes saying how much they were going to miss the place. After a time, the owners added another note that said, “we had no idea how much we meant to you.” Maybe if they had known, they might have tried harder to find a buyer—that was the feel.

Recognizing the Loss

I remember thinking at the time, what a loss this place was to see go away. Rockridge is a special neighborhood, but lacks park space, coffee shop space, or other third places, where people could just kind of, hang out and be, meet up, study, and feel part of something. Why didn’t civic leaders understand the critical importance of these spaces, to the health and happiness of the neighborhood? Why didn’t the very business owners understand? If this was a financial decision, why couldn’t the city create a fund to help the business out, as a public good? Or special tax breaks or zoning?

Kathryn and I both feel that local businesses of all kinds play a role in weaving fabric of the community together. That as society we are largely unconscious of it, or of how it works. At a city level, at a business owner level, and even at a customer level—they might not really realize just how important it was, until it was gone. Being recognized; being seen; feeling part of something—how do you put a value on that?

Identifying the Essential Elements

The implications of this are clear: if small businesses don’t really understand what it is that people like about them (and what they dislike about them), then:

  • How are they going to know where to put their efforts?
  • How will they know if changing something will make them more successful, or less successful?
  • If they were to expand to a second location, for example, how will they be able to ensure that they are creating the same qualities in the second place, that are actually the reasons people are coming to the first one?

In order to fully see or recognize something, it’s essential to have a language with which to see it. We tend to live in sets of priorities handed down by our culture; but those do not always fulfill us. If money takes on a weight as the one solution to our problems, we may work and work to attain money as the way to meet our needs—even if money is really not going to fulfill those needs. This is why a careful analysis of what seems to be really satisfying and effective, is so important.

For example, I think career has gained so much prominence in the minds of many people, that they freely move away from a place they love, that was full of connections and meaning. Later, they miss the place, and the loss of all that connection. But because our society so emphasizes career success, it weakens other ties of connection that might be important in other ways—but hard to articulate in our culture.

Kathryn, Anita and I have worked gradually and carefully in crafting our new way of working because we are charting new territory. We are putting language and form to what we have intuitively felt; to give it validity; to have a better way of talking about it.

150 Local Bookstore Websites

We looked at 150 websites the other day for independent bookstores, said to be the best in their state. We found them to be almost entirely terrible, in terms of what we felt was the job they should be doing. That job was to reinforce and amplify the things that make that bookstore special as a space, a community resource, something special Amazon just can’t compete with.

But the stores seemed to think they were in the business of merely selling books. As a commodity. As though the experience of being in the bookstore, the browsing, engaging, connecting, all were unimportant. Very few websites featured photos of the store; of those few who did, almost all featured the store empty—void of people. But what I love about bookstores is the interrelation of browsing, people watching, the excitement of discovery, the sensual experience of the space, and so on. The sites had almost none of this. It indicated that they really didn’t understand what made their experience special. Either that, or they were so unfamiliar with using the web as a medium, that they deferred to a technician who seemed to know more than them about the foreign medium (but who knew nothing about how to convey a lovely experience).

People who end up with a successful business may often happen upon a formula that works, but not be completely conscious of which elements are really making that business work. While of course helping people be profitable, we also want to find ways to explore and articulate what makes a place a more wonderful space to hang out? A more exciting place for the community? More fun for the owner, and the staff? Our holistic vision for success, is that it’s better for everyone. (And obviously we believe that profit and these other qualities, are interrelated.)

The Essential: Getting Feedback

How often does a local business (or a bigger one, for that matter!) find out from customers, what is working and what is not? Rarely. And yet, having this knowledge will be the difference between success and failure. A business needs feedback. Just a little bit, over time, is infinitely valuable, compared to having no information. It will be the difference between success and failure, and yet many small business owners feel that they are running too fast to stop and find out what’s working, and what’s not.

New Leaf Community Market had a suggestion board. By the time you’d filled the wall with suggestion cards, you are really going to create a feeling that the business is talking with the customers! Of course, each card has to be carefully responded to. The thoughtfully-written answers. in the handwriting of one of the staff members, send a message that they really are listening. And responding.

This makes us remember that Part 2 of our three-step process—connect—is bi-directional. It’s at least as much about listening as it is about talking. To connect means hearing, and then, reflecting back what I heard. Actually, your whole business is a collaboration with your customers. They happen to be in the role of giving money, the role of shopgoer, and so on. And the staff are in various roles in the exchange. But you’re all part of the same system—the same symbiosis.

Business is a Collaboration Amongst All the Parts

It takes everyone together, to make it a business. It’s a collaboration between the people in the business, the customers, the suppliers, all. There are exchanges on many levels—not just financial. The satisfying sense of being able to be of service to someone. A chance to listen, and help someone’s life be a bit better today. Some gratifying human interaction and validation. A chance to say good morning, and have a warm transaction of humanness. The fun of hanging out in a good environment. The satisfying feeling of getting to choose from good options, and to learn about different things.

So value exchange can happen on many levels at the same time, back and forth, among all the participants.

When I come into an environment as a customer, I certainly want to contribute something to the experience as well. I want to make the barista’s life a little bit richer, or have the cashier feel good about their job, or appreciate my server for their labor. So I am contributing to the success of that business, and its overall experience, in different ways.

This idea of “stacked value”, happening in multiple ways at once in a rich, human business environment, can create a rich, layered overall experience. And this is—in a variety of ways—what you are paying for, as much as you are paying for the goods that are sold. Sometimes, the goods are a little bit of an excuse. For example, sometimes I’ll go to a coffee shop to have a place to sit and people watch, read, and so on, but I really have no desire for anything. But I’ll buy a decaf or something, so I have a “good” to purchase, to buy my seat—but not even drink it.

Rich and Non-Rich Environments

In France, you are meant to make an effort to greet the shopkeeper when you come in, and thank them when you go out.

In so many ways, in American society we have atomized our experience—that is, broken it into separate constituent parts. Driving in private car to a work place, then home to the home place, shopping often in big box retailers, chains, and so on. These make it hard to have chance interactions. These make it hard to stack functions, as the permaculturists would say (i.e., meet multiple needs through a single situation). You can talk about this as non-rich environments, as opposed to rich environments, where functions are stacked.

As a society we had thought this atomization, this de-stacking of functions, was actually a sign of creating a more orderly, logical society. (Well, it was, but it went much too far; it was a symptom of hyper-masculinity, and of taking the linearity of the so-called left brain too far, at the expense of the richness of life. But in the 1950’s, it seemed good and modern.)

This kind of Taylorism affected the United States intensely.

By re-enriching, we can create these experiences with this cumulative value that has an intangible, exponential growth in value, where you can’t really separate out all the different parts. It’s not meant to be broken down into constituent parts—any more than a poem is, or a painting is, or a song.

And Gross National Happiness

The idea of Gross National Happiness, first developed in Bhutan, provides inspiring parallels for what we are wanting to do in businesses.

What is GNH?

Gross National Happiness, or GNH, is a holistic and sustainable approach to development, which balances material and non-material values with the conviction that humans want to search for happiness. The objective of GNH is to achieve a balanced development in all the facets of life that are essential; for our happiness.

We are in the age of the Anthropocene when the fate of the planet and all life is within the power of mankind. Boundless consumerism, widening socio-economic inequality and instability is causing rapid natura resource depletion and degradation. Climate change, species extinction, multiple crises, growing insecurity, instability and conflicts are not only diminishing our well-being but are also threatening our very survival.

Today, it is inconceivable for modern society to function without the business of commerce, finance, industry or trade. These very factors are altering human destiny by the day in extraordinary ways, both positive and negative. GNH directly addresses such global, national and individual challenges by pointing to the non-material roots of well- being and offering ways to balance and satisfy the dual needs of the human being within the limits of what nature can provide on a sustainable basis.


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