Saturday, September 10, 2011

In Commerce, As In Life, It’s Survival Of The Fittest – Jan. 24, 2002

    Nostalgia is fine, except when it hinders growth and development. Just as Charles Darwin demonstrated that "survival of the fittest" was fundamental to the evolution of the human species, the same rule is apropos to the business world. As a result, the weaker, little guy often loses.
Nostalgia notwithstanding, without progress, I daresay, or evolution, we’d still be living in caves and lighting fires by rubbing two sticks together.
As an adult, anyone who visits "the old neighborhood" can plainly see examples of changes and expansion, including the absence of the corner candy store, the malt shop/luncheonette hangout, the friendly druggist and the butcher shop.
In some cases those merchants, who owned and operated their businesses for decades, reached retirement age and moved on. In other, sadder instances they may have been forced to leave due to competition that offered a wider variety of products and services.
More than 50 years ago, the demise of smaller, friendlier grocery stores began as supermarkets began sprouting up, gradually displacing local grocers, like my maternal grandfather who owned a store on Ocean Avenue in Sheepshead Bay. The space has been everything from a beauty parlor to a video store, among others, since he closed shop.
The few times I visited him there, or the previous store he owned and operated with my grandmother a few blocks from their Brighton Beach home, I clearly recall customers getting the royal treatment from Sam and Lena.
That’s the way it was - back then. Service was more personal. Today, as my editor pointed out in his column last week, a work ethic is few and far between, as is courteous service. But that may have more to do with indifferent, minimum-wage employees than detached businessmen.
Customer relations tend to deteriorate when thriving businesses expand because isolated corporate owners sit in steel and glass towers constantly checking the bottom line instead of cruising their stores’ aisles.
A couple of recent instances reminded me of how mega-businesses can alter the fortunes of smaller, friendlier merchants. The first was this past weekend when I read about the closing of Coliseum Books, which had been a bustling midtown staple since 1974, long before the explosion of Barnes & Noble, Borders, and cyber-stores like Amazon.com. Anyone who ever shopped or browsed the 57th Street bookstore, can never forget the experience due to the quality and quantity of its stock, as well as the knowledge and civility of the 57th Street’s stores employees.
Another case was during my coverage of a story concerning the spring opening of a Home Depot store near Kings Plaza. State Senator Carl Kruger, who was objecting to the home improvement chain’s impending arrival because of "potential traffic hazards," remarked that the megastore would hasten the loss of a Marine Park "mom and pop" hardware store. He also noted that the area had already been affected by the loss of Canarsie Hardware in recent years.
While it’s sad to witness the ruin of those neighborhood stores that offered singular personal service to customers, there’s also a need for growth. Besides, the addition of the larger business will provide scores of local jobs and likely increase consumer traffic that could benefit other community merchants. Those who lamented the passing of the Avenue L hardware store no doubt found another outlet, albeit less personable, to buy nails, duct tape and such.
Nostalgia is best suited for family get-togethers and school reunions. Whether it’s the demise of the vulnerable neighborhood "mom and pop" store or some preservationist trying to avert the demolition of an insignificant community landmark, the expansionists generally triumph because they operate with Darwin’s reliable theory in mind.