Saluting small business

Pub date April 23, 2006


  Back in my hometown of Rock Rapids, Iowa, a flat land of tall corn and homestead farms way out in northwest Iowa, my grandfather and father ran a small, family owned drug store for more than seven decades. Their slogan, known throughout the territory, was "Brugmann’s Drugs: Where drugs and gold are fairly sold, since l902."

   The town was then and still is about 2,800 in population, and we were miles away from the nearest cities of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Sioux City, Iowa. The merchants, and the farmers and townsfolk who patronized them, had to go it pretty much alone and depend on each other for economic sustenance.  The two Brugmann families bought shoes at Jensen’s and Hornseth’s shoe stores, purchased clothes that often didn’t quite fit at Bernstein’s department store, bought our groceries from Bob Bendinger and Tony Sieparda’s grocery stores, ate meals out at Jay’s and the Grill Café, banked at the Rock Rapids State Bank and later the Lyon County bank,  went to endless church suppers in town and in the country to support the local churches, hired Jim Wells to do our taxes, used both Doc Wubbena and Doc Cook, the town’s two doctors, and had our teeth done by Doc Lee and Doc Fisch.

   My dad, as the town pharmacist, would often get called at night, sometimes twice, to go down to the store and fill a prescription for one of the doctors tending a patient who needed emergency help. My wife’s father, who owned a lumberyard in Bennet, Nebraska, and later a hardware store in Le Mars, Iowa, followed the same routine. As did her grandfathers, one who founded banks in small towns in Nebraska and Kansas, another who ran a grocery store in Topeka, Kansas.

   I asked my grandfather and my dad why they went out of their way to do all these things in town and why I always got pulled along as Con Brugmann’s boy. "We want to keep our money working in town," they would reply. "That helps the store and that helps the town." I also asked why they put regular ads in the local Lyon County Reporter, run by Paul Smith as the fourth generation of the pioneering Smith family, when everybody already knew what the store offered in merchandise and service. "That’s the price of having a good local paper in town,” my dad would say.

   Significantly, Brugmann’s Drugs and our old store building have been transformed into the B and L café, a friendly oasis featuring yummy homemade pies and soups and a unique setting full of antique furniture. It is owned and operated by Beth and Lawrence Lupkes, a husband and wife team who work long and hard to keep the café going from dawn till dusk seven days a week. Their key to economic sustenance: they keep their “day” jobs, Beth as a dispatcher for the county’s emergency services, Lawrence as a rural mail carrier and mayor. Lawrence’s sister is the main cook and they press family members into service.

   When my wife Jean Dibble and I founded the Guardian in l966, we quickly found that the cooperative small business way of life that worked in little towns in Iowa and Nebraska and Kansas worked the same way in San Francisco with its tradition of neighborhoods and communities. Small business, we found, was not only the leading job generator and a key piece of the city’s urban fabric. Small business was critical to building sustainable local economies in San Francisco and most other cities. Jean and I like to think that the Brugmann and Dibble families have been continuously making small business contributions to our communities since l902.

   A long list of studies shows that small businesses keep more money circuutf8g in the local economy than big chains. The chain money is wired out of town every night—and chains are more likely to buy from other chains, in bulk, and thus rarely patronize other local businesses. So very little of the dollar you spend at a chain store stays in the community, which means its impact on the local economy is negligible. Money that stays in town creates more jobs, more business activity, a more stable economy and a larger tax base. Thankfully, no Wal-Mart came to the Rock Rapids area, but Wal-Mart came to several other Iowa communities with disastrous consequences to the downtowns and local tax bases of three towns and seven counties. Many other studies showed similar consequences in many other areas of the country.  (The Hometown Advantage, Big Box Economic Impact Studies from the Institute for Local Self Reliance.

    When academics and policy makers around the country are increasingly discussing ways that cities can be more self-reliant, work more with local resources and thus be both environmentally and economically stronger, they are talking about the value of small, locally owned, independent businesses.

    Economies are all subject to business cycles. If a city’s economy is dominated by a monocrop and or a few big companies, the entire economy suffers when they take a hit. Rock Rapids is tied to the farms and the weather.  Detroit’s fate is tied to the auto industry. If Microsoft and Boeing have blips, the impact is felt across Seattle. But a community with many different local businesses in many different niches is much more able to survive and even prosper in tough times.  After the l906 earthquake, it was the entrepreneurs and small businesses that lifted the city from the ashes. After the dot-com bust, it was again the small businesses and the entrepreneurs who are helping cushion the blow and leading the recovery.

    The bottom line is that the big chains see a community like San Francisco as a place to extract money from as quickly as possible, much like the strip miners in the Sierra. Small businesses see the city as a place to invest human capital to build real community—to join merchant groups, get involved in local politics, hire local kids, patronize other businesses, work to invigorate their neighborhoods, spread the gospel of shopping local. (See the San Francisco Locally Owned Merchants’ Alliance at

    Jean and I and the Guardian staff are happy to salute the small business community with our second annual Small Business Awards. Our congratulations to the winners, all working in their own way to transform San Francisco into a sustainable local economy. And our congratulations to the thousands of small business people in San Francisco, and the merchant groups behind them, who daily struggle valiantly against daunting odds to keep their businesses going, their neighborhoods vibrant, and San Francisco an incomparably great city.

     This year, we give special recognition to Arthur Jackson, who for almost four decades helped thousands of people get jobs in small, independent, locally owned businesses through his employment agency, Jackson Personnel Agency. He died on April l0 at     age 58 after a courageous fight against a series of illnesses including a kidney transplant.  He lived his favorite quote: “Putting people to work is a passion for me, because the paycheck fully empowers our community.” Arthur, as we all called him, won our diversity in small business award last year and his name will live on at the Guardian in the form of our annual Arthur Jackson diversity in small business award.