Sunday, September 20, 2009

Mom and Pop and a Dream of Sharks

Robert Spector, a friend of mine from an earlier incarnation as a reporter for the now-defunct Daily News Record, has a new book out called The Mom and Pop Store/How the Unsung Heroes of the American Economy Are Surviving and Thriving. Robert, in a way, is a product of such a store (you might say he's a son of mom-and-pop), and he has a successful career as a retail consultant and motivational speaker. His other books include The Nordstrom Way and Category Killers.

Through the blog post linked above, I reconnected with Robert, who has a website with video excerpts from some of his talks to retailers. In these, he is revealed as articulate and charming, and somewhat in love with the retail business itself, if done right. He excels in pinpointing the features that mark the difference between success and failure in the business; it is his contention that one of the hallmarks of a good retail business plan is a sincere commitment to customer service. In other words, something like the way it works in a small, old-fashioned mom-and-pop store.

His new book is more than a guide for retailers. It is a memoir, a trip across the country examining with affection the workings of a slew of independent neighborhood shops. I'm only on page 25, and I find myself marvelling at his ability to transport the reader to the atmosphere of the little homegrown store, not unlike the many stores we set foot in many times a day in Hoboken.

Karen Long, writing in The Cleveland Plain Dealer, seemed to enjoy the book while criticizing it for not giving details on why such stores survive or telling retailers how they can make this knowledge of success work for them. To me, it was as plain as the nose on Robert's face, and permeates his attitude toward retailing: Caring about your customers and working hard pays off in the long and short run. In mom-and-pop stores, (as well as in Nordstrom's) America has a perfect example of the best in retail philosophy. And his book is a good read even if the running of a store is not your main focus in life.

Robert had a booksigning in New York the day before I moved. I hadn't seen him in 30-odd years, and I was interested in getting a look at his book and handing him a copy of my own, so I dropped what I was doing, which as you well know by now was packing, and took the PATH train to 23rd St. to the elegant gift store on the second floor of the New London Pharmacy, which is one of the stores mentioned in the book. There was Robert, after all these years, resplendent as the only man in the room in a bright red shirt, greeting old friends from high school, his family, Michael Brummer from Hobby's Delicatessen in Newark (an establishment mentioned in the book)--with a #5 sandwich in a brown paper bag--and about a hundred other people, eager to greet him and get a copy or two of the book.

It was Jewish old-home week, with visitors talking about their test scores in high school and how proud they were of Robert. I spent some time discussing grandchildren with a very pretty high school friend of his who is about to have her first.

After the booksigning I came home and packed a little more. Then I watched a new show called "Shark Tank" on tv, which has nothing to do with Jaws, but is a so-called “reality” show about entrepreneurs who ask multimillionaires for funds to take their goofy businesses to the next level. I got rather engrossed in the kind of schemes that get funded and the remarks by the gazillionaires, etc. If any of the supplicants has a winning idea, the gazillionaire indicates his approval by saying, "I'm in!"

I give the show another month or two but doubt it will have a full season, but I was intrigued with it on that particular night.

Then I went to sleep and dreamed that I was one of the gazillionaires and Robert and a few of my favorite other Jewish friends were supplicating us rich guys for funds to establish a Jewish theme park. They were all so nice and happy, and as a gazillionaire I felt strongly that they had a great business idea. I said, “I’ve never heard of a Jewish theme park before—I think it’s a wonderful idea. I’m in!” and they all hugged and laughed and rejoiced.

I emailed Robert about the dream and he said it would make a good short story. The whole adventure is a good short story, or at least a good long blog post. Now that you've reached the end, I hope you're interested in checking out the book. I've written a review of it on

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