Calvin Coolidge, one of our more inaptly-named Presidents (total square, that guy), famously asserted that “the chief business of the American people is business.” Earlier, though, and much less famously, he expressed agreement with another sentiment: that “the measure of success is not merchandise, but character.” That these two statements may seem contradictory is exactly why I’m taking the time to talk to you about small businesses, because it is in the world of small businesses and small business owners that you see first-hand these twinned forces that energize American life: business and character.
We are a country built of communities. Small towns are their own communities, self-contained and singular. Big cities, mammoth as they may seem, are still made up of distinct, unique neighborhoods, so much so that many a big-city denizen will identify themselves not by metropolis but by neighborhood, down to the street or the block.
And what makes up those neighborhoods, and what brings life to those little towns with one main street that is, indeed, Main Street? Small business, the idea, and small businesses, the individual shops and carts and trucks that make up the whole of the enterprise. These things—these people—are what make our cities and towns unique. Together, they weave a beautiful patchwork quilt of stores, restaurants, barber shops, salons, markets, hardware stores, and what-have-yous in our towns and neighborhoods, our cities and country crossroads. They provide work for workers and goods for consumers, and give each a look through the prismed window to see our multi-hued country in a good and bustling light.
So where do I fit into this grand tradition? Quite simply, I was born to it, and grew up in an entrepreneurial family. My grandparents were antique dealers, restauranteurs, and trout farmers. My dad was a stone mason and is now a cattle farmer. The only odd duck in the pond is my mother, now happily retired after a 43-year nursing career. (We always joked that she was the only one with a paycheck, a jibe easily turned back, as you might imagine. “Behind every successful rancher is a wife who works in town” was a sentiment not unheard around our house.)
No babysitters populated my childhood: if Mom was at work and I wasn’t at school, it was off to the shops for me. (Too young to haul bricks and stir mortar, according to Dad.) After school or all through the summer, it was days and afternoons at the antique store, the restaurant, or the little sandwich shop run by my aunt, where I learned, among other things, the correlation between the time one had to lean and the time one had to clean, and how never the twain shall meet. To say small business is in my blood may or may not be an understatement, but it's really all I know. To not work for myself and to present my version of American business and character to my community is to not be fully whole. So naturally, I believe I am doing the thing that I am supposed to do in life by being the owner of a small business.
But this isn’t all about me. I want to shed some light on what it means to support a small business. At Bella Vita, in addition to our handmade jewelry, I try to source all of our gift items from fellow women entrepreneurs, local artists, and fair trade companies from all over Arkansas, the United States, and the world. In the six years Bella Vita has been a brick-and-mortar shop, we have carried over 200 different artists and companies that fit the above criteria. It is very important to me to have unique items in our store that also support other small businesses.
When you spend your money in your local economy it stays in your local economy. Shopping at Bella Vita obviously provides a living for my family and my four employees and their families, but there is a whole chain of suppliers that we source from, too. We work with woodworkers, metal casters, metal platers, chain makers, bench jewelers, screen printers, marketing gurus, photographers, consultants, and accountants, just to name a few.
And when you spend your time in a small business, that stays in your local economy, too. The economy of character, the chief business of the American community. Small businesses appreciate your business, sure, but just as importantly, they appreciate you. So the next time you need a necklace or a nail, a ham or a haircut, take a stroll down a street where everybody knows your name, or at least your face, and you can look through the shop glass and see yourself reflected back, going about your unique, singular, multi-faceted business.
Written by: Matthew and Brandy McNair
Photos by: Allie Atkisson & Lucy Baehr