Sun Beams, Snow Banks, and Small Businesses

Seattle was inundated yesterday by a steady snowfall during which it was cold, then warmer, then colder again: AKA, a recipe for icy road disaster (at least in a city of 142 square miles with 26 snowplows).

Today’s morning news and communications, then, were dominated by transportation-related issues.  “Schools are closed!”  “Courts closed!” “Clinics closed!”  “Stay home by all means!”

That wasn’t an option today at RevenueLoan — we had a closed deal to paper and two more to work on.  So I put on the hiking boots and the bubblegoose, and navigated foot-mobile through the mostly-closed Seattle streets.

And, while abnormality was the order of the day — 30 year old Seattleites sledding and sliding around like giddy 5th graders, hilly streets barricaded, and creep-crawling traffic throughout the day on main highways — what struck me most was the acute normality of the day for the small businesses I passed.

Local printing company — “open” for business.  Our caffeinated home-away-from home at Moka’s Cafe — check.  Tiny bookstore slinging used paperbacks and tacky tourist t-shirts — you bet.

The office windows across the street from mine, usually packed until 6 or 6:30 with yuppies at an Anonymous Top Online Retailer, are empty at 4:30.  A Major Local Operating System Vendor was beseeching people to stay home.  And, that’s fine — arguably most of the people out there driving today were assholes endangering themselves and others (at least if my anecdotal observations can be extrapolated).

But there’s something heartening about seeing that neon “Open” sign lit up — not the giant custom one in the corporate standard font, but the red-and-blue one you can buy at Costco when you’re first hanging a shingle.  Something heartening about the proud real-estate guy giving the walking tour to prospective tenants on pavement he just scraped and salted.  Something heartening about the beer distributor’s careful truck maneuvers as he pulls up to the corner bar to restock it for happy hour.

OK, fine, cynics: I know that these people are responding to the iron economic law that governs small business, and the simple reality that fixed costs don’t go away.  There is no East-coast failover data center for the guy who makes sandwiches on the corner, and there’s no corporate balance sheet to pay him his take-home if he no-shows.

But I think it’s more than that.  People doing their work because the work itself is valuable.  Yes, bonds have value.  Yes, big corporate edifices have power.  But imagine a world of 6 billion bondholder rentiers.  Who makes a tasty Jambo sandwich?  Who actually prints up your annual reports?  The work we do, cumulatively, is what makes humanity wealthy (and human, for that matter).

And those small businesses are the individual loci of non-abstractable human work.  The smallest functional unit that can deliver the value they do.  And they show up despite the snow.

So maybe it was the bright sun in the sky, reflecting off of the snowpack, and giving a blessed vitamin-D-blast on a Seattle winter’s day.  But something about the walk this morning, and the “open for [small] business!” that came to me from shop windows and storefronts, gave me a cheer.

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