Reports of the death of Westport's mom-and-pop stores are greatly exaggerated.
As well as the mom businesses, and those run by dad.
Just ask anyone affiliated with the local chapter of BNI (Business Network International). That's the 28-year-old organization that provides "a positive, supportive, structured environment for the development and exchange of quality business referrals" through hundreds of chapters worldwide.
It sounds like your basic Chamber of Commerce -- support area merchants! make sales! earn money! -- but with an important twist. Only one business per "category" is allowed to join. In other words: one liquor store. One hair stylist. One fitness center. One Rolf practitioner.
Every member of BNI helps everyone else. But they're not competing against each other. They're working together.
A networking event last Thursday at Phillip Bruce Salon -- a longtime BNI member -- showed what the organization is all about. (It also raised money for Project Return, the residential girls home on North Compo Road.)
Members -- Dale Minske Interior Design and Decoration; Koko FitClub; Work It Out Wardrobes; Marc Poirier photographer; Purple Feet Wine & Spirits; Stella & Dot Jewelry & Accessories; Tracy Boyce Feng Shui, and (of course) Cody Smolik, Rolf practitioner -- set out marketing materials. (Nearly every one included an iPad video -- the 2013 version of a foldout brochure.) There was good food, plenty of wine (thanks, Purple Feet!), and low-key but very intense networking.
Yet it was not a typical BNI meeting. Those take place once a week, early in the morning. Members -- over 40 local businesses, ranging from financial services firms and health and wellness professionals to tradespeople -- gather for breakfast, conversation and (this is important) education. Each member speaks for one minute about his or her work, highlighting specific needs for leads. One business is featured; the owner has 10 minutes to talk in depth about what he or she does. There is time too for thanks, and testimonials.
Then, members pass referrals around. The result, one owner says, is that "each of us becomes part of every other member's sales team."
Sales are tracked closely. Since October, BNI members have conducted over $890,000 worth of business with each other. They speak with an almost evangelical fervor about the organization. It provides an opportunity to meet other small businessmen, sharing issues of concern and strategies for growth. It offers real leads. And it's a chance to see that in a town moving inexorably away from mom-and-pop shops, there is still a place for small owners and relatively simple stores.
They are, in fact, the lifeblood of our community. When Staples Players solicit ads for their programs, sports teams seek donations for fundraisers or PTA parents need items for silent auctions, it's the local businesses that step up to the plate. They give, and give, and give some more. Chain stores say "no" (or, more politely, plead "corporate policy" as the reason they can't give).
Small businesses allow fliers in their windows. The bigger shops are filled with slick advertising posters, straight from headquarters.
But it's not only small businesses that are so important to Westport (and any other town this size). It's also our sole proprietors. Interior designers, photographers, electricians, attorneys, plumbers, nutritionists, architects, party organizers, tutors -- these are the men and women we turn to far more often than we realize.
Their offices are scattered all over town. They work on the second floor of Main Street buildings; in spaces hidden in plain sight on the Post Road, and (sometimes illegally) from their homes.
Plenty of other folks work by themselves now too. Consultants are a cottage industry, filling spare rooms, basements and cottages, from Saugatuck to Green's Farms. They consult on a smorgasbord of subjects -- finance, consumer product packaging, airline regulations -- and they consult for nearly as many reasons. Some were downsized from high-paying jobs. Some left corporate America voluntarily, to raise children (and their ranks include dads as well as moms). Some just found a niche, and never left.
You see consultants often, pecking away at laptops in Starbucks. They're joined there by writers (big-time and wannabe). And plenty of others, with jobs too amorphous to classify.
We tend to think of Westport as a town of Tiffany, Ann Taylor, Restoration Hardware, Brooks Brothers and the Gap. But most people who work here don't work for those chains. They work for one or two partners, or themselves.
BNI helps some of them succeed -- referral by referral, Starbucks helps others -- one venti one-pump caramel, one-pump white mocha, two scoops vanilla bean powder, extra ice frappuccino with two shots poured over the top (Affogato-style) with caramel drizzle under and on top of the whipped cream (double cupped) at a time.