I wish that the basic laws of economics were such that big town businesses would thrive in smaller burgs like mine. If it were so, I would drop everything and open a little coffee shop that invited loafers and hipsters alike.
Of course, I have taken a hiatus from coffee myself: too much acid in my stomach and indigestion to follow it. But a low-light little shop where folks could take 10 minutes away from life, drink a little java and chit-chat – that’s the dream.
You can have it in a city, but a small-town version would be so much better. Yeah, those busy moms on their way to work would be your major clientele in the morning hours; but through the morning, the farmers would be in to talk about their usual struggles and triumphs. You don’t get much of that in the city.
Maybe you’d catch some novel-toting thirty/forty-somethings during the day, and a giggling teenager or two after school. In the evening, it’s hit or miss: maybe in the slow season a few of those farmers come back around, or maybe the moms need a decaf after a stressful day.
Regardless of how the day specifically shakes out at Pearl’s Cup-o-Joe (that’s what I named the place), the fun is that you get to talk to everyone. In the fantasy, money is no object, so if you sell 15 cups of coffee all day and finish the week in the hole, there’s no problem.
I have reinvented and renovated the downtowns of these little communities a hundred times. In my wildest imaginings, I haven’t come up with a single, realistic, economically sustainable plan of action. Just a bunch of dreamers’ whims, fantasies of a perhaps impossible ‘Main Street’ in each rural town.
But wouldn’t it be great? A little center of trade, lined with small stores, coffee houses, cafés and gift shops, and everything stays open, because money is no object. Wouldn’t it be something?
There’s a real world we live in, however: a world where businesses that lose money close, and specialized shops can’t make it in small towns because their expenses are high and their volume of shoppers is low. Se we end up growing the big towns bigger and watching the small communities slowly fade into history.
We have seen the economic challenges to keeping viable, sustainable business alive in small towns, and perhaps there’s little use in dwelling too much upon the topic. But in my mind’s eye, brick buildings filled with impractical retail choices – the kind of places that open, then close four months later in real life – make a great fictional downtown.
I guess if money were truly no object, then there would be better things to do with it than to resurrect rural northwest Missouri business districts. There are new innovations that could be brought to our communities, commercial offerings in new buildings, you know, out by the highway.
Progress is important, but so is preservation. Where’s the line between them? At what point should we leave the past behind, appreciate all that it was and invest our attention toward the future.
I know for certain that it is possible to make bad business decisions based upon sentiment; throwing money at old buildings is one thing, but it’s impractical to expect much of a return on such an expenditure.
Still I dream. I’m allowed to do that, right? There had to have been a little of that dreamer’s spirit that went into these towns back in their early days, right? The winners and losers hadn’t been decided yet, and every town had the chance to grow and thrive. In certain respects, that ship has sailed, and perhaps the thriving economic hopes of the past are gone. But sometimes, I wish for that little coffee shop. Maybe it loses money, and maybe it’s just me and a couple of other dreamers who are sitting there at a table. That’s okay. A simple fantasy trumps a complicated reality any day.
Matt Pearl owns and operates newspapers in King City, Albany and Grant City.