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More than a Store on the Corner

Local Business

Small businesses are moving online and so is the culture and social fabric they bring with them.

Saskatoon’s Mayfair Hardware on 33rd Street was a fascinating place where you might find marbles and parts for old houses. Still running the shop at 89, the shop’s owner, Bruce Thomas, had an encyclopedic memory of the store’s inventory and his customer’s names.

Together, the owner and shop brought a personality and flavour to 33rd Street impossible to replicate, while complimenting the surrounding communities’ grit and character.

So, when the store shut down in May of this year, the street lost more than a store on the corner. It lost a piece of its social fabric and culture.

“Mayfair Hardware and other stores on 33rd Street were places where children could shop in safety,” said James Scott, whose dad sold Bruce’s father the land.

“I, from the age of 5, was able to learn how to use money and to interact with merchants like Bruce,” Scott said. “I wonder if children are still able to have similar experiences. If not, we have lost a rich part of our culture.”

He’s right. As the world becomes more connected, including a global online marketplace, the impact on how people interact and develop a sense of community is changing.

Prior to the health crisis, main streets across the prairies were already changing and shifting. A coming wave, as BDC put it, of small to medium enterprises (SMEs) are changing hands or closing.

“Entrepreneurs overwhelmingly cite retirement as the number one factor behind their decision to move on,” the report claims.

This reality combined with the recent shutdown is a major challenge for communities across Canada, and the economic impact has already been significant.

“The scars of an unprecedented recession are already visible on every Main Street in Canada,” said Dawn Desjardins, vice-president and deputy chief economist, RBC. “In many ways, small businesses are the Canadian economy, representing more than 40 per cent of GDP, and close to 60 per cent of new jobs prior to the health crisis. We cannot expect a full economic recovery without a small business rebound.”

Beyond the numerous business successions, and the painful disruption caused by the pandemic, many small retailers and shops are competing, not only with giant box stores, but global online aggregators, like Amazon.

In most communities, these types of online businesses do not provide tax revenue, jobs or anything else of concrete economic value. They simply vacuum wealth from communities and drop products on doorsteps. So, how does small business compete?

In some ways, the strength of online aggregators’ is a weakness.

Main streets and business communities across the prairies each have a unique character thanks in part to the ingenuity and energy of entrepreneurs like Bruce.

An online aggregator, like Amazon, brings only one cultural aspect: convenience.

It doesn’t paint a mural or provide jerseys for the local ball team. It doesn’t bath the block in the smells of fresh bread or smoked meats. No sound or ambiance is contributed. Nor does it plant a garden or host a bbq next door. The only thing it does is put products on your doorstep.

Not surprisingly, we like having products dropped on our doorsteps.

But small businesses across the prairies are proving resilient, and their customer base has shown they value local, small business. The combination is potent.

The town of Vermillion in Alberta held virtual tours of its local businesses. 9 Mile Brewery in Saskatoon set up a virtual tap room. Restaurants and shops throughout the prairies shifted to delivery and curbside pick up, and local manufacturers contributed to the emergency response effort.

To accomplish this, many small businesses moved online. Most will likely remain there. The ‘new normal’ includes competing online and the unique character of our small business communities will move online with it. But they may need to do more.

RBC suggests forming “economic alliances to scale small business.”

“Small firms […] need to form alliances—the equivalent of digital coop movements to compete in the global platform economy,” the news release claimed. “Scale will matter more than ever, to drive efficiencies for consumers who may want local for less.”

No doubt this reality presents a variety of opportunities for small business owners. For the sake of our local economies, and the social and cultural fabric of our communities, we should support them.