“I don’t even have the boys’ room open yet.”
That’s what the waitress said to me three minutes ago. She knows I followed them here. It is thirty-seven minutes past six, and the room isn’t opened yet. She’s flurrying now, like a February squall in Upper Michigan, turning on the lights, pushing the tables together, making sure the condiments are filled and giving each already-clean table a quick wipe down just so the room is fresh when the guys arrive.
They have been coming here for about two months now. Each morning they saunter in one at a time, greeting the familiar faces as they pass – me, the waitresses, and the other group of guys that always sit at the front of the eatery. It’s not busy here. Not this early. Not usually. But when the guys show up, this chain diner comes to life. They fill the morning with stories, if you’ll sit and listen, and with laughter, revealing a history and culture both rich and engaging.
Maybe it’s the storyteller in me, or maybe it’s the reader in me, or maybe it’s the granddaughter and niece who misses her grandfather and uncles – but something in me longs to hear their tales and to take to heart the wisdom and levity they bring to a sometimes very serious and tense world. And so I’ve listened. For more than two years now, I’ve sat nearby, scrawling furiously in my journal, making notes about wars and marriage and local buildings and politics and weather and round-a-bouts and flannel and inflation and cast iron skillets. Something in me has an unrelenting need to preserve their words, their stories, their histories.
These are the historians of a passing generation. Both nationally and locally, they carry in their memories and life stories the details of a culture that is setting like a winter sun – too quickly and too unnoticed. There is something sacred about it. As a child, I loved fantasy and fairy tales; I’ve always been a dreamer. I suppose some of that still lives in me, because sometimes when I’m scribbling down quotes and details, I get lost in the thrill of it; I feel like a scribe of an ancient religion, who is tasked with recording a vivid history that may just save the declining culture in which she is now trapped.
But this is not their first choice. Though the staff here treats the men well and graciously allows them to sit here every morning (sometimes for as much as two hours at a time), this was their backup plan. They began at a small, locally owned business. That is where I met them. That is where I fell in love with them. That is where the magic enveloped me – at a local café where the locals could sit and tell tales every morning, entertaining both locals, like me, and tourists who flooded the room. I remember one beautiful moment where two teenage girls were sipping hot cocoa and talking about the University (they were here for Orientation, enrolled as freshmen for the coming semester), and one of the girls answered a call on her cell phone from her mother. She exclaimed, “Mom! We found the locals!” Indeed, she had.
Sadly, the local business changed ownership. The new owner, no doubt concerned with turning over those tables in a timely fashion to ensure good and steady revenue at a shifting moment in the business, unfortunately, left these men feeling like they were not welcome to sit there every morning for two hours, drinking coffee and telling their tales. It is a very sad dilemma, to be sure. All of these men, me, anyone reading this can understand the pressure the new owner must feel to turn a profit in his early months with the business.
Sadly, the local business and the local historians are now alienated from one another. It breaks my heart.
This Thanksgiving, as we enter the Christmas shopping season, you’ll hear many voices encouraging you to shop locally, to support your local businesses and the small business owners in your community. I echo these sentiments. Support your local businesses. They are owned by your neighbors, the people you see in church on Sunday, the folks who may see your car in the snow bank and stop to pull you out (or folks you may stop to pull out of a snow bank). They are friends and family of someone you personally know— someone you personally care about. Your children attend school with their children. Your support of their business puts food on their table.
So do. Support your local businessman this holiday shopping season and every day.
But to the local businessmen, I encourage the same: Support your locals. Recognize that the almighty dollar – though necessary to your success – is not the most important thing in a successful local business. After all, as customers, if we give primary importance to that same dollar, we are probably going to choose the large corporation with whose prices you cannot compete. It goes both ways: You need your locals; Your locals need you. Don’t let this generation pass unnoticed. Don’t let your locals pass unnoticed. Don’t let today pass unnoticed.
Because today the men are talking about a building in downtown that used to be, a building that perished in the great fire of June 1868 and is no more, a building their fathers spoke of during their childhood; and tomorrow, folks like me, who were listening to the stories, will be telling stories about your building, your business, and whether or not you survived the fire of a changing culture (and a changing business). What story do you want me to be telling? When we pit ourselves against one another, neither of us wins.
Locals… local business owners… support your neighbors.