“What can I get for you?” the old man asked when I walked in the store. The expression on his face was expectant and hopeful, almost uncomfortably so.
I was on my bike, two mountains into West Virginia on a long ride. “Just a couple bottles of water,” I said. His shoulders sagged, disappointment obvious, and I noticed the chalkboard menu behind him.
“And one of your sandwiches,” I added quickly.
He asked what kind. I told him to make me his favourite.
I pulled an old metal chair up to a scarred wooden table to wait. The next mountain I would climb dominated the view out the window. I’ll see all I want of that soon enough, I thought, so I turned to look around.
I saw a small, owner-operated country store. You know the type: For years a hub of the community, now pushed aside by convenience chains. The shelves were filled with items — fishing lures, diapers, auto parts, books, movies, homemade crafts — once essential but now gathering dust as relics of a world much less flat.
My head was turned away and I didn’t notice he had shuffled over. “Oh. I’m sorry,” I said, half standing. “You didn’t have to bring my food to me.”
“That’s all right,” he said. “Sit down and relax.” He paused and tilted his head towards the plastic tray in his hands. “I made one for myself. If you don’t mind I’ll sit and eat with you.”
“Absolutely,” I said. He pulled out a chair and joints creaked as he eased down.
I took a bite of my sandwich. “This is really good,” I said. He smiled.
Then he started asking questions. Where was I from? Where I was going? How long did it take to get used to people seeing me in that skin-tight getup?
As we talked he took small bites of his sandwich. I could tell he wanted the conversation to last.
I asked about his store. He said he had opened it almost 40 years ago, back when folks only made the trip to “town” (Franklin WV, population 720) every month or so. He had tried to stock a little of everything. In time he learned which items different families needed and tried to carry those, too.
“Now I don’t know what to do,” he said. “Most of my old customers moved on or passed on. I try to keep up but nothing much seems to work.
“I don’t know. Maybe this is a young man’s game.” He sighed and leaned back in his chair.
“I just don’t know,” he said, almost to himself.
I tried to think of something to say. I could talk about meeting an unfilled need or finding a niche or differentiation through service, but whatever I said would be a platitude… and platitudes only tend to insult insult those who have already given everything.
Sometimes there isn’t anything to say.
So we sat in silence as he looked out the window, his eyes fixed on something only he could see.
Eventually he shook his head, we talked some more, and a little while later I left.
As I rode away I thought about how business can be a metaphor for life. At a surface level business is cut and dried: You make money or lose money, build a customer base or lose a customer base, launch a new product or watch it fall flat.
You care about the surface level because it’s important, but under the surface is where the true importance lies. Under the surface are the connections, the relationships, the friendships, and the times you don’t just serve a market but get to make a real difference in another person’s life.
For him, that was the mother who had counted on him to stock her baby’s favourite formula. That was the father who had occasionally found time to take his boys fishing and counted on him having bait. That was the carload of boys who stopped in for sodas and snacks and a movie to take home on a Friday night because that was how they spent their small town Friday nights.
He and his store had meant something, however minor, to people.
Now it didn’t. Now he didn’t.
I’d like to say I found a way to help turn his store around, but life doesn’t work that way. (I did ask a friend who holds an annual cross-country motorcycle charity ride to route through that part of West Virginia and stop for lunch. Later he said the old man was overwhelmed by the crowd but also seemed happy, especially when he was asked to join in a group photo.)
When I rode by a year later the store was closed.
I unclipped and stood in the dusty parking lot. Nothing moved but a few loose shingles flapping in the wind. No ads in the windows, no sign above the door, nothing to memorialize a lifetime of work.
One of the things I do is write for Inc.com, and every time I write an article I try to think about him. While I sometimes write about startups and technology and fairly esoteric business strategies, at a deeper level I try to help people like him, people with goals and hopes and dreams and a sincere desire to build a better life for themselves, their families, and the customers they serve.
Do I make a huge difference? Of course not. I’m not that egotistical and while stupid, I’m not that stupid. But I do hope to make an occasional impact, however, and possibly provide a tiny bit of encouragement or inspiration or motivation.
That memory of the flicker of desperation in a struggling entrepreneur’s eyes inspires me to try to give others in the same position a few tools that might go some small way towards helping them achieve their dreams.
And barring that, I try to provide a little spark of hope, because the most valuable thing we can give, no matter how faint or fleeting, is the gift of hope.
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