(Courtesy photo by Conrad Erb)
My grandfathers, Joseph Bergheiser and Max Cohen, were shopkeepers. I never really knew either man, but the current crisis has shown me what they might have meant to their communities.
Joe left behind growing religious intolerance in his native Austria in the early 1900s, and opened a luncheonette in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, New York. Max, whose family emigrated to the U.S. at the peak of Russian pogrom attacks in the late 19th century, ran a children’s clothing store in the shadow of the old Third Avenue El in the Bronx. They were neighborhood anchors, immersed seven days a week in their communities and their patrons’ lives.
I always wondered how these men who ran small businesses in the throes of the Great Depression and against the backdrop of world war had the fortitude to persist, supporting their young families on a sometimes threadbare existence and returning to their shops day after day even in the midst of calamity.
Small businesses today are facing similarly desperate times, but the desperation has not shaken the goodness of those whose shops give life to our commercial corridors and shape the vitality of our communities.
Since the start of the COVID-19 shutdowns, University City District — the economic development organization I run — has worked to support independent retailers and restaurateurs. Seeing the current small business crisis up close has taught me about the character and strength of the merchants among us, linking my forebears in my hometown of New York to those in my beloved longtime home of Philadelphia.
In the early days of the crisis we at UCD conceived several ways to offer immediate help to local businesses. We believed we were offering generosity, but what we’ve gotten back from business owners has been far more generous in thought and in deed.
When we launched an emergency grant program for retailers, the nearly universal response spoke to community rather than competition.
First, UCD established a gift card matching promotion, hoping to quickly get cash in the door for struggling eateries. But instead of keeping the money from our match, some donated it to community groups they deemed too essential to the neighborhood to fail.
We then set up a sponsorship program to buy catered meals from local restaurants and donate them to a community group feeding families in need. We implored our restaurants to charge us market price, but every single one insisted on steep discounts. “We are the lucky ones. We are able to keep fighting,” wrote one owner. “Please redirect the discount to another small business. On our end, we will make sure those families get a great meal.”
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And, finally, when we launched an emergency grant program for retailers, the nearly universal response spoke to community rather than competition: “We’re OK if others receive the grant and we don’t. We’re all in this together.”
At a time of great division, so many are working together for the common good, manifest in the women and men and families who work day after day in the shops that help to choreograph, in the words of the great urbanist Jane Jacobs, the powerful “ballet of the good city sidewalk.”
Our sidewalks and communities that are buoyed by the sameness of the shopkeepers’ devotion are also animated by their differences.
On the blocks where my grandfathers did business in New York, eventually came a beautiful tapestry of shops and shopkeepers as varied and polyglot as the city itself — bodegas and taquerias, spacious Korean grocery stores and hole-in-the wall dim sum houses. Together, they form a wonderful medley of signs and scents and shoppers as far as the eye can see.
In University City, instead of Joe selling sandwiches at his luncheonette and Max offering sturdy clothing for children, we have first-generation business owners in their 20s selling bubble tea, and restaurants where you can partake in the East African ceremony of Gursha, with friends and families feeding each other bites of food on injera bread as an act of friendship or love.
Think of what we’ll miss if the crisis takes any of this away — in Philadelphia or New York or any place else — the diversity and devotion of shopkeepers, the eclectic offerings that define our neighborhoods, the very rhythm of the city itself.
Our merchants, used to fighting for our communities every single day, are survivors by nature. But it will take every single one of us working together to sustain them, doing the little things — like ordering takeout, contributing to virtual tip jars, and buying gift cards — and the big ones, like pushing for local emergency funds and advocating for small businesses in federal stimulus policies.
If we offer this support to local businesses now in their hour of need, we can ensure they’ll be there for our communities when they’re needed most — as we try to return to some sort of normalcy when this is over. It is inspiring to know that this work has already begun.
Max and Joe would surely be proud.-30-
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