Monday, January 11, 2010

Compassion and Business Failure

About five minutes walk from my house, there used to be be a 7-11. It had been there since before I was in high school. When I came back during my college summers, I'd often stop in late at night to pick up a bucket full of caffeine and sugar and CO2 in solution before pleasantly squandering my evening and early morning playing NES and talking with friends. Since shortly after we bought our little homestead, it had been a target destination for walks with the boys. Amazing how the promise of a Slurpee can motivate kids to take a brisk hike.

Early last year, much to the horror of my boys, the 7-11 shut down. For more than six months, the building was empty. Then, someone leased the site, and that someone began trying to start up a new independent convenience store.

It doesn't seem to be going well.

For the longest time, the interior was totally stark, with only a smattering of shelves with an assortment of oddments. No posters. No colorful displays. No fountain drinks. No Icees or Slushies or Mushies or Squishees, or any comparably icy blended beverage. The store appears to have one employee, the owner, who appears to be either Indian or Pakistani. 99.975% of the time, his battered early 90s SUV is the only one parked there. He sits at the counter. He stands outside smoking. He's there in the morning, at night, on weekends and on weekdays. He appears, quite frankly, to live there. But though he's there all the time, his business is evidently failing. What would be the best little convenience store in Islamabad just doesn't cut it in suburban America.

My boys and I have noticed and talked about it. There's real pathos in this struggling business. There's a life coming apart right in front of our eyes, as each of the lease payments come due and the unsold stock passes it's expiration date and that little parking lot stays empty, day after day, night after night. So we're rooting for the guy. We've watched as the store owner has made efforts to improve. A few ad posters now decorate the walls. There are now decorations and a few displays. My 11 year old son, whose heart beats big in his chest, actually called me on my cell the other day just to tell me that the store owner had finally taken down the little banner that passed for a sign, and replaced it with a real illuminated sign. He's trying. He really is. But still, his careworn Blazer sits alone in the lot.

Should we shop there? We could...but there's not really anything there we can't get for less money at the spanking new grocery store across the street. We could...but the only things that drew us there are no longer sold there. We could...but our business alone wouldn't sustain it. We could...but compassion isn't something that drives us to buy things we don't need or want.

And so we watch. And as I watch, I wonder whether this little store is some sort of metaphor for the thousands of tiny churches all around the country that are struggling to survive, my own included. It's not that they don't try. It's not for lack of effort, or earnestness, or even faith. It's just that they don't offer up something that people want or need.