Labor Day is supposed to be one of the fun holidays. It’s one where you’re expected to be at the lake or the beach. Only the most unfun of Facebook scolds will spend the day lecturing you for having the temerity of enjoying a holiday rather than attending some sort of serious public ceremony.
With its origins rooted in the unionization movement from the late nineteenth century, Labor Day is the day we commemorate the efforts of the American worker with a well-deserved three-day weekend. With many of us still working and learning from home, it’s getting harder and harder to tell what a day off looks like. I, myself, have taken to the practice of sitting in a different chair on weekends.
If this holiday is to be observed slightly differently as has become custom during 2020, then perhaps a different “worker” needs to be the focus of the honor. There is no neat category for the small business owner. Entrepreneurship is the bond between worker and owner that unites the two separate classes into one for the self-employed. The burdens and pressures of each fall on the same set of shoulders.
The realization of what it means to be a small business owner came to my family when I was an early teenager. My father left a safe but stressful role as federal government internal audit director to fulfill a dream of owning an operating a retail hardware store.
Sometimes the dreams were sweet, and sometimes they were nightmares. Such is the life of the person who puts capital at risk but also puts long days to ensure that customers are served and the employees are taken care of.
We had the store for ten years, starting when I was thirteen years old. It’s where I learned many of my valuable life lessons. They started on my second day we owned the store when I went in before school and my father handed me a toilet brush and pointed to the lavatory.
“Why me?” I can recall asking in some form. “Because I cleaned it yesterday, and I need the people that work here to know there isn’t a job I expect them to do that I won’t or haven’t done myself. And that applies to you, too.”
Dad was a wise man. Understanding that much of my education about life was just beginning, he wanted to ensure at the very beginning that I understood that ownership and stewardship of an enterprise wasn’t about privilege. Those that are successful and endure are the ones that take care of the stakeholders first, and even then, rely on more than their share of luck.
There was a lot of good luck toward the beginning. We were in a rapidly growing county and Dad understood both the retail customers’ needs as well as how to sell in volume to a contractor customer base. We expanded and modernized, increasing our sales volume, but that also consumed the capital the store was producing.
I learned quickly that people thought we were suddenly “rich” because we owned a business, despite Dad’s take home pay probably dropping a bit. Many, both private and government entities, constantly approached with their hands out. Dad helped as many as he could.
About the time we began to face big-box competitors the city decided to take away off street parking and re-route traffic around our courthouse square location. Paving equipment routinely blocked our parking lot for months.
At the time, the City Manager was quoted in the local paper on large retailers hurting established local businesses. He said that shopkeepers didn’t need to be so lazy and match the big store’s hours.
My Dad usually had 12-14 hour days, and often would use Sunday afternoons when we were closed to play catch-up. Those words still chafe, more than three decades later.
Now we’re in a situation where many shopkeepers, barbers, dentists, and restaurateurs were forced to close for weeks or months at the same time the government sent thousands to citizens to spend money at their competitors that were deemed “essential”. To many who put their capital at risk, that’s going to chafe for a long while too.
Most of our small businesses will be open this weekend, or will be back open next week. Let’s enjoy our holiday weekend. Let’s also celebrate the labor – and the risk taking – of the small independent businessman over the days and weeks ahead.