U.S. Is Losing That Small-Business Feeling
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Here's another story about south Asians in the U.S. from commentator Angeli Primlani.
ANGELI PRIMLANI reporting:
You know these motels. They're all over America. A lonely highway, a man named Mr. Patel sits behind the desk, a twelve-year-old girl delivers buckets of ice.
Well, our name wasn't Patel, but otherwise, the ice bucket girl was me. My family operated and lived in Quality Inn Halores, on Highway 301 North Bypass, in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.
People called me gopher, because that's what I did, go for this, go for that. It was not an easy life for my parents. There were no days off, not even Christmas. My sister and I had to be miniature adults. If a bus tour came in unexpectedly, she and I dropped what we were doing and pitched in.
But I loved gophering and I loved the motel. It was like a village, a tiny, self-contained universe. The after-church crowd came to the Sunday buffet for both the fried chicken and the shrimp curry. Our biscuits were so good, the Hardees executives got breakfast from us.
We had a bar, and a piano, and a back room with a dance floor, and huge mural of the sun setting over my dad's hometown, Darjeeling.
Of course, I also thought I was the biggest freak on the planet. In middle school, I wanted to be normal, live in a house with a yard, with a dog, and parents who went to offices. But then my parents sold the motel and moved into just such a house, and it was awful.
I missed the parade of interesting strangers, and the sense of mission. Even if the mission was get the breakfast tables cleared. There are hundreds of south Asian kids who grew up this way. An entire generation graduated from the roadside motel school of America. Most of us went on to college and assimilated into normal life. But I think some of us still, secretly, are looking for that village. And I came close to it.
While I was searching for work after graduate school, I formed a relationship with Something Wicked Bookstore, in Evanston, Illinois. I've read tarot cards there, bought comic books, worked and hung out. Bookstores are natural villages, and this one includes gamers, aspiring writers, and people who can tell you the minute differences between X-Men, New X-Men, Astonishing X-Men, Uncanny X-Men and the Ultimate X-Men. The part of me that's gopher is deliriously happy there.
So when the owner announced she was closing, it was like losing the motel, all over again. Running Something Wicked took ten hours a day, six days a week, plus another five hours on Sunday. And after ten years, it was more than Linda could manage. My dad said the same about the motel. It takes more than capital and a decent work ethic to turn a small business into a village. It takes heart, soul, a few teeth, the kind of focused attention that most people reserve for their lovers or children.
Neither my family's motel nor Linda's bookstore failed outright. Running the business simply took more than the owners could give. Right now the village is grieving. Big, burly comic fans stand by the counter saying, I feel like I've been punched in the gut. It's great that small communities form around small businesses, but they are first and foremost someone's livelihood. They don't just need affection, they need money. So I hope the customers remember this feeling. I hope they'll recognize the next special business when they find it. I hope they open their wallets as well as their hearts to it. I hope they return a tenth of the love that its proprietors cast before them. Because this kid called gopher grieves, too.
NORRIS: Angeli Primlani lives in Chicago.