My brilliant second career came courtesy of a long-dead grocer.
George Bowers was a New Yorker who died at the turn of last century. I knew nothing about George back in 2007. At the time I lived with my boyfriend, Brian, in New York City. Two things kept me awake at night: overwhelming student loan debt, and the fantasy that in a rising real estate market I could cash in and make it go away.
The problem was that the only place I could afford to purchase a house was in the small town I’d left 22 years earlier. I’d recently visited it again to pet-sit for my uncle, and, viewing it with fresh eyes was impressed with its character and walkable historic downtown. Knowing of my proclivity to “jump right in!” to things I shouldn’t, I sat on the idea for year.
Finally, I jumped. In early 2008 Brian and I rode the train down—it was, in fact, nearly door-t0-door service on Amtrak. We bought our first house, an 1866 stone cottage. We rode home giddy.
The joy was short-lived because the Monday we returned to the city he lost his job. Shit.
With hindsight we can see that his job was a canary in the coal mine. The small architectural firm he worked for served very high-end clients. It was the start of a national—and eventually personal—implosion.
After some debate we resolved to move south. Leaving the city wasn’t difficult because we’d see how we liked it, and, if we didn’t surely we’d be back once we sold, because of course the market is still going up! Brain would work on the house, I would continue to telecommute to my job in Boston. What could possibly go wrong?
We didn’t know it, but we were about to meet George.
One night, we were making dinner and realized we didn’t have any feta cheese. No feta! We’ll just go downstairs and...Oh, right. We’d have to drive to the supermarket. Was it open?
In the city we could step outside at any hour for such need. It seemed laughably bourgeois now.
I was retelling this to the very talkative coffee shop owner the following day. I was unaccustomed to such chattiness but the wi-fi was free and ours was not yet installed.
“You know,” the joe jockey said in a casual way that did not hint at our radical reinvention or events to come, “Next door used to be a grocery store.”
He told me of George Bowers, a man who hopped the train from New York City to set up a prosperous grocery here in the 1870s. In 1881 George expanded to his second, and final location, which was next to the present-day coffee shop.
“Damn,” I marveled, “he must’ve been very likeable!” How else could one explain the success of a Northerner setting up shop in a small Southern city so soon after the Civil War? (Although this area may have had mixed loyalties: theories persist about locals supplying Yankee officers with prostitutes to explain the city’s architectural preservation.) I casually mentioned that I thought it would be a good idea to have a neighborhood grocery again, and thought that was the end of the conversation.
In an improbable turn of events a short time later the coffee slinger and his New York transplant wife decided to re-open George Bowers. Would we like to be the “passive” minority partners?
It seemed like an opportunity to invest in our new community and solve the where-can-we-walk-to-buy-feta “problem” at the same time.
Sounds great, we said.
It was great: we rebuilt George’s original location as a turn-of-the-century grocery featuring local and specialty foods complete with dark wood and marble. We “re-opened” George’s old grocery to much fanfare. The neighbors seemed exited.
The business partnership, however, was dead on arrival. We discovered our partners could barely tolerate each other. They couldn’t keep agreed schedules and regularly disappeared. We grew increasingly frustrated at their grossly overstated experience, and suspicious of their true motivation. They were majority business partners in our business and, to complicate matters, owned the 130 year-old building our our shared business paid to renovate. Their enthusiasm for the project quickly centered on collecting the rent.
Then, a month after we opened they decided to close their coffee shop next door. “Bad economy” they explained. (Remember how no one in the U.S. drank coffee during 2009? Yeah, me neither.)
This closure left our fledgling new business deserted three blocks away from another business in all directions. Overnight the market crashed and the money dried up. Suddenly, no one was talking about neighborhood investment or revitalization anymore...least of all our partners.
They turned their attention to their roster of ramshackle rental houses and decided to hold George hostage.
“We’re the majority owners. We’re closing this business unless you pay us to leave.”
So there we had it: two bad choices. Pay these jerks to leave, or, service a bank note on capital improvements made to their building and the start-up costs of a 3-month old business. Goddamnit. How did we get suckered by these cheats? These losers? We thought they seriously wanted to revitalize our neighborhood. Were we complete idiots?
Idiots, sure. However, it was, in hindsight, a classic business-newbie mistake. Don’t start a business with people you don’t know. Even if they seem “nice”.
We paid them to leave.
This decision put tremendous additional debt burden on the business each month. Before we could celebrate taking control of the new business the challenges started coming - fast and furious.
It got worse.
I lost my job. We stopped work on the house.
Our heater died during the coldest winter on record. The cat’s water dish froze solid inside our old, drafty house. Twice.
When we could no longer afford health insurance, we bought life insurance. Eventually we couldn’t afford that.
We drained our savings and maxed out our credit cards. Vendors insisted on cash payments.
Those damn student loans still kept me up sleepless nights.... except, now I saw our degrees as impediments to our job search, not the job seeking edge we’d been lead to believe.
Besides, we had a business to save. Our inventory disappeared because we were eating it to survive. Our electricity and water were shut off.
...and despite this, we told each other we could make it. We could survive. We could withstand anything.
It was bleak. Very bleak. But we kept going.
Finally...things started to change.
A community of strangers started showing up in our shop.
They became customers. Some became regulars. Some became friends.
We dismantled the parts of the business we didn’t like, and worked to grow in new directions.
We borrowed bridge funds from our local micro-lender. We were recipients of generosity from unexpected sources. We hustled.
We got great advice and experienced a few lucky breaks.
We bought more inventory. We fixed our heater. We got current on our bills.
We began to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
…and on May Day, 2009, we crawled from the wreckage and got married at the courthouse under a smiling portrait of John Wayne.
This summer we moved to a better location. We're in an old school house at the intersection of our neighborhood and downtown. We expanded with a café and patio beer garden. We feature live music four nights a week. We still work very hard. But now, George is working for us, too.
Living in a small town and starting a business continues to teach me many lessons. Among them are a new appreciation for people across this country who work so hard and sacrifice so much to operate independent businesses. These are tough and determined people. Every day they work against damning statistics of failure. I know; I’ve witnessed it and lived it.
If you are serious about the battle cries of “buy local” and claim to be a part of the 99%, there is no stronger voice than spending money in the independent businesses who serve your neighborhood and city. Many of these businesses are fragile. Independent businesses are necessary in more ways than simply making money—they make communities.
George Bowers Grocery has taught me a great deal about “community”. Specifically, how tightly connected we are: economically and emotionally. We are grateful for our neighbors’ ongoing support. We are also thankful to live in a community who values entrepreneurship enough to put the money on the table when the banks would not via micro-finance lending (thanks, Staunton Creative Community Fund).
This journey also sparked a passion for small cities. Small towns, particularly in their oft-overlooked and under-appreciated downtowns, were built at a walkable, human scale. They were made to support a local economy and build strong ties within the community. Today, small cities are increasingly reliant on entrepreneurship. With a lower cost of entry they offer untapped potential for creative expression, economic independence, and even environmental revitalization...
George has taught me how much I value living in a walkable city where my economic efforts directly impact the health and happiness of my neighbors. It’s a role I didn’t imagine but have grown to love.
Katie McCaskey and her husband Brian Wiedemann own George Bowers Grocery in Staunton, Virginia. Katie’s first book, Urban Escapee: How to Ditch the Commute, Build a Business, and Revitalize Main Street will be released next year.