Rambling in Rockport
Yesterday, a post went up on GMG written by the venerable Joey C. on his Saturday a.m. shopping experience in the equally venerable town of Rockport, Mass. The post has since been edited in response to the wail that went up from Main Street and parts of Bearskin Neck — a wail that could be heard all the way in East Gloucester, ringing through the antennae of the crustaceans piled up on the dock as Rockport shop owners rose up in protest. (The protest is mostly on Facebook if anyone wants to read along for some insight into what I’m talking about).
It seems that Joey came to Rockport on Saturday no less than twice (which is two times more than a whole lotta other locals) in an effort to procure some goods from some stores that had caught his eye on Instagram, but both times he was thwarted. Once, because he showed up with the not-unreasonable plan to eat breakfast and shop after the stores open (in theory anyway) at 10 am and the other time — after he was stymied the first time — because he couldn’t find parking. A parking pain we have all felt from the regular schmuck just trying to buy a doughnut from Brothers’ Brew to the the highest Selectperson in the land, just trying to buy a doughnut from Brothers’ Brew. In frustration Joey had no choice but to go to Bed Bath & Beyond or worse, maybe Kohl’s — I don’t know, it was some terrible place way far away with a couple of football fields of empty parking spaces — and line the pockets of our Corporate Overlords with his hard-earned dollars.
The point of the original post seemed to be twofold: 1) Talk about how genuinely great the shops in Rockport are, mention how awesome the Rockport Farmers Market is (yes it is!) and give a well-deserved shout-out to breakfast at the Blue Lobster Grille, and 2) Call out the shops for contributing to shopping difficulties by opening after 10am when securing a downtown parking space in Rockport in July is roughly worth the price of your firstborn.
A coupla things. First off, in the eyes of this very lame GMG occasional contributor, Joey stepped up by editing the post to reflect that he did not plan his shopping visit to Rockport with a strategy that included the realities of a shopping visit to Rockport. In Rockport, there’s not much about the retail scene that is like other places. The shops are independently owned, many of them run year-round by the same person (in spite of the assumption that everything is seasonal) who at some point has to see his or her family and take a shower, and then there is the consumer. Residents and tourists in Rockport follow ancient traffic patterns that involve a complex algorithm of when/if the sun is shining, vacation alcohol consumption recovery times, and preferred side of the street to walk on (I’m serious about the last one). Showing up in Rockport just minutes after the sun rises — which, on Rockport time, is more or less 10 am — is an exercise in futility, unless you are planning on going to the farmers’ market, eating a strudel, heading out in a boat, or staring at your fingernails while you sit on an empty bench. It may sound nuts from a consumer standpoint, but there is a method to the Rockport retail madness.
For most shops (multi-generational places like The Pewter Shop or John Tarr’s notwithstanding), opening at 10 am is equally an exercise in futility, with shop owners waiting in vain to make a sale to the approximately sixteen potential buyers that are out strolling Bearskin Neck and/or Main Street at that hour (a count that actually goes down to around seven people when adjusted for the ones who “forgot their wallet” — oldest excuse in the book — because they’re walking the dog or just aimlessly wandering between coffee places). Maybe the Rockport Farmers Market, which is only in its third year, will help change this, as shopping patterns shift to earlier in the day. I hope so.
Secondly, for those of you who read the Facebook thread in response to the original post, the merchants make some valid points, even if these points are cloaked in dismay, sadness, and even one or two expressions of rage.
People who come to Rockport, and maybe even more so people who live in Rockport, have no idea what running a shop in Rockport is like. It’s hard to write about this, because readers will immediately go into Mach-Defensive mode, rushing to explain to merchants everything they’re doing wrong, starting with the brilliant point that no one is forcing anyone to own a shop in Rockport (as though, because shop owners aren’t forced at gunpoint to run a business that means any point they make about the REALITIES of running that business become moot. Which is bizarre. So don’t bother with your “no one is forcing shop owners to own a shop” nonsense comments. I mean, you can bother with them, but I’ll just know you’ve got nothin if that’s your opener.)
Owning a small retail shop is a lot like owning a mom-and-pop restaurant in the sense that literally every single customer that walks through your door — or stands outside of it because your shop is closed — thinks, at some level, that they can do what you do. Imagine how crappy that feels for a second. Every single person thinks they are an expert on your work, when in reality they most likely know next to nothing about retail in general (let alone retail in Rockport), which demands a mix of smarts, financial wizardry, aesthetic gifts, salesmanship, and lots and lots of luck. Because weather is involved. It’s a lot like farming, actually. You have to anticipate what will sell at market six months in advance, throw everything you have ($$$) at it and pray like crazy the sun shines at the right time. Then you have to show up, pretty much all the time, but chances are (and by chances I mean literally, by chance because retail is also like gambling — you are always playing the odds), it will be still be the wrong time for someone, who will tell you how you screwed up. Which could be true, the screwing up, but if nearly every shop is closed in tandem at the hour you want to shop, then chances are there aren’t enough people shopping at that hour and the issue is with consumer patterns, not store owners.
I used to own a shop on Main Street in Rockport, and if I had a nickel for every soul who came in and stood at my counter and began a sentence with “I’ve always wanted to own a shop” or (the always-fantastic) “You know what you should do? You should…” well then I would still have closed my shop because I would be so incredibly rich I would have bought my own island, named it Cape Get Out of My Face I am So Very Tired and moved there.
Story time: one hot summer day years ago, I was standing in my shop in Rockport contemplating whether this was the right time to leave the store to dash to the bathroom. That’s right. Because I did not have a bathroom in my shop, even though I paid a rent that would make your ice cream melt, because several Rockport landlords have decided toilet facilities are optional. Anyway, a woman came in right at that juncture, when I was choosing between the health of my bladder and losing a potential buyer who might wander in and help pay my toilet-free rent. I looked at the woman — might this be a customer? who is always right? — as she stood blankly in the middle of the room, her mouth hanging open. I honestly thought she might need help of a non-retail variety because she she seemed so disoriented and aimless fifteen seconds into her visit. Suddenly she whipped her face toward me, a face distorted in rage and shouted “I might have BOUGHT SOMETHING if you had said hello to me!” I was shocked. Before I could even respond she spun on her heel and stomped out the door. (Follow up: I chased her up the street and begged her forgiveness at the same scale at which she screeched at me. More confusion ensued.)
Take that scenario and multiply it by a thousand, only don’t forget to account for variations — like the strangers who come in and, when, you say hello in your best cheerily calibrated shop voice, haughtily inform you that when they need help they will ask for it, rolling their eyes at their companion at what a loser you are, accosting customers who want nothing more than to fondle your merchandise in peace — and it all adds up to a lot of stress for the small shop owner. Especially since most of their net worth — and lot of credit — is tied up in that merchandise.
Anyway, I could go on as I have stories galore, both from my store and those of friends. Like the time a customer — except he didn’t purchase anything — put a 14-inch vintage knitting needle up his nostril nearly (hopefully) into his brain in order to demonstrate his sideshow prowess to a lady friend, or that one time a customer — except she wasn’t — used the corner of another friend’s store as a bathroom. Actually, maybe I should have realized that last one, using a corner of the store as a litter box, was an option. I never would have had to leave the store then.
I should add, because I need to clarify, that having the shop was wonderful, and I loved working in Rockport and connecting with locals and visitors from all over the world. I really miss those days in so many ways. It’s just that getting advice from strangers when I was already about to pass out at the counter from working 7 days a week is not one of them.
The Takeaway (with Tissue Paper and a Gift Bag)
In short, while it’s important for shop owners to listen to consumers, especially ones who are as supportive of local businesses as Joey, it is also important for consumers to listen to shop owners, and not assume the worst — that they are willfully refusing to say hello, or that they purposefully refuse to stock whatever it is you want to buy, or that they are rolling around at home in a pile of undeclared cash that they raked in from all those suckers who came in to buy a candle or a card — or whatever it is that people assume. Buying local is a two-way street, a marriage between small business owners and their customers, and just like in any relationship, mutual respect goes a long way.