Watching a loved one die is what it felt like. The business had been in my family for 35 years and on the last day we stepped foot into the building -- the last day to say goodbye -- it felt like observing the passing of every hope and dream my family ever had.
We never imagined a life without Leonard's, the women's apparel store my grandmother worked at as a teenager in the 1940s, went on to purchase in the 1960s and owned all the way until 1999. It was a second home to my mother and I; both of us being only children, we followed our mothers to work every day. The difference is, my mother worked there from the age of 16 to 49, and she knew no other job -- no other life -- outside of the family business. I, on the other hand, grew up there, but was never meant to inherit the family business; Leonard's closed when I was 16.
Leonard's was a popular clothing store in Upstate New York when the economy was still thriving and before the abandoned casings of large corporations dotted the landscape. The store was opened by a cantankerous old couple -- the Leonard's -- and my grandmother, a fresh-faced, doe-eyed 20-year-old named Nan with a knack for fashion, came to work for them in 1946.
She worked dutifully for almost 20 years, and within that time married my grandfather and went on to have my mother. In the mid-60s when the Leonards retired, my grandmother, interested in taking over, promptly walked to the local bank (it was a few doors down; Leonard’s was on your idyllic all-American Main Street) and inquired about a loan to purchase the business.
As my grandmother tells it, the bank owner laughed in her face. This was 1965! Women shouldn’t own businesses! Determined, she sent her male friend in place of her to acquire the loan and Leonard's became hers. Shortly thereafter, she divorced my grandfather, who had become an antisocial bore incapable of showing emotion, and was now a single female business owner before the women’s liberation movement was in full swing and in a town where people only played by the book.
My grandmother prided herself on running one of the most fashionable stores Central New York had ever seen. In the 1970s, she and my mother, who was now a hip 20-something herself, would drive down to the city and bring back designer wear unknown to the people upstate. Their staff included two European saleswomen, a seamstress and a bookkeeper.
The saleswomen, Gabrielle and Monique, beautifully fulfilled every American’s idea of what French women are like; feisty, raspy-voiced, stylish and with a cigarette constantly dangling out of their mouths. How they ended up in our small town is beyond me. Maime, our seamstress, was a classy woman of age who still sewed with her old Singer machine and always had a smile and candy waiting for you, and Isabelle, the bookish bookkeeper who sat in the loft, overlooking the store, writing numbers in a leather-bound ledger.
These women made up Leonard’s; these women showed men that the XX could be stylish AND run a successful business.
Leonard’s was the epicenter of activity, frequently holding events, and my grandmother was often president or on the board of local business associations and community organizations. Women from all over Central New York came to the store to see what was new and to converse with the attentive staff my grandmother honed.
For years, there were few that could compete with the quality Leonard’s brought into the area, but as big box companies like Wal-Mart, K-Mart and JCPenny moved in with inexpensive clothing options and people became less concerned with quality, sales began to decline and my grandmother spent her entire life savings trying to keep the business afloat.
When it became clear that Leonard’s had to close, no longer able to compete with the big box store that were squashing local businesses, something changed in all of us. My grandmother, devoting every day, every thought, every ounce of energy to that establishment, would have to learn to move on. My mother, who knew nothing else other than working for her mother, taking care of friends in the community, at 49 would have to find have another job for the first time in her life. Me, who watched the pain and anguish on the faces of the two women I loved most, would have to learn to deal with the heartbreaks life has to offer.
Now at 86, my grandmother still speaks as though she failed. She failed Leonard’s, she failed her staff and she failed her family. I have to remind her every time that running a business for 35 years is the epitome of success. Even at her age, with an aging body, frail back and weak legs, my grandmother would be at that store every day if it survived. As for my mother, we rarely discuss the store. It is a thought too painful for her.
Because of my experiences growing up in a family-owned independent business, I try to shop locally when I can. Shopping at mom and pop stores helps to stimulate the local economy, and by stimulating the local economy, you will see a positive chain reaction in the form of small businesses leaving less of a carbon footprint, giving back to the community and treating their employees well which in turn creates good customer loyalty.
Here are a few numbers for you to nosh on: According to a 2011 Forbes article called “Shopping Local vs. Shopping Locally," studies show that 45 % of a locally-owned business’ revenue stays in the community as compared to chain store’s measly 14%. All of these reasons are important when deciding whether to shop locally or at a big box store.
But if supporting the local economy isn’t a concern of yours, please think of the many men and women who had a dream and put every ounce of blood, sweat and tears to into running a successful business, to help support their family, their staff, to give back to the community and to create a future for their children.
Think of the hopes and dreams dashed by the chain store behemoths, with their inexpensive, outsourced merchandise, that come in and take over cities like an invasive moss. Think of my grandmother, who spends most of her days wondering what she could have done differently and missing the store that gave her so much joy, and so much purpose.