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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Microstory 1887: Feeling Poverty

Even though I grew up as the son of general store owners, I always felt poor. I think it mostly had to do with the fact that we couldn’t afford the time it would take to enjoy luxuries, like vacations, because someone always had to be at the store. When mom and dad both retired, I took over fulltime, and tried to put my snazzy business degree to good use. We expanded into the empty unit next door to add more shelves, but I never thought to franchise out, or do major advertising campaigns, or anything like that. I just wanted us to be a little more comfortable, and work a little less. I ended up hiring a larger staff than we ever had before, and spent less time there personally. My children weren’t interested in helping out after serving their part time sentences as middle school and high school students, and I didn’t discourage them from pursuing their respective dreams. I ran a clean business. I filed my taxes accurately and on time—or rather I paid the right person to handle it all for me—and I treated my employees fairly. I also kept my prices fairly low; not enough to dry out my profits, but enough to support my community faithfully. Back in the late 1990s, this country suffered a terrible economic depression. Inflation was at an all time high, as was unemployment. Everyone was struggling, including us. But we did okay. I didn’t have to let anyone go, I just had to raise my prices a tiny bit. For some, that tiny bit was as vast as a canyon, and for the very worst off, an untraversable one. People starved to death. My heart went out to them, but I had to protect my own family. Still, I did what I could, instituting promotions where possible, usually when a particular item was in higher than normal supply. Even then, not everyone could afford to buy what they needed to survive.

We had a couple of security cameras by then, but they weren’t exactly HD quality. There were likely a number of instances of theft that went by unnoticed. A box of cereal here, a can of soda there. It happens, and anyone who runs retail just sort of has to accept the risk. One day, during this depression, I was stocking an aisle with canned food when I noticed a misplaced item. People do this all the time when they change their minds, you’ve seen it. All I had to do was hop over to the next aisle over, and reshelve it. I incidentally did this quite quietly, and happened to catch a young woman sticking baby formula inside her stroller, right under her baby’s legs. At that moment, we locked eyes, and she froze like a stunned animal. I recognized her as a regular, and I’m pretty sure she knew that I was the owner, and not just some minimum wage worker. All of those were on the younger side of the spectrum. I didn’t know what to say as we stared at each other, so I ended up not saying anything. I cleared my throat, shelved the item in its place, and walked away. I don’t know what was going through her head, but she probably had her own internal debate about what to do. In the end, she left with what she needed, and only actually paid for a carton of milk. Years later, she returned to my store in tears. I had seen her many times since the incident, and we never spoke of it, so I’m not sure what had changed, but she wanted to apologize. She wasn’t the real mother. She was actually the sister, and their mother had died, which was why she wasn’t producing breast milk. I told her it didn’t matter. The kid needed food, the kid got food; end of story, no apology necessary. I wasn’t able to help much during the depression, but I was able to help this one person on that one day. I guess it will have to do.

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