I went into town this week for a coffee at the small and dearly loved cafe across the street from the shoe repair shop, run for years by a Russian guy from St. Petersburg — Russia, not Florida — named Mike. I suspect it wasn’t his Russian name, but it worked.
When I started freelancing and had few clients, and too much time on my hands, I’d sit with him for an hour and chat. We both loved to travel and he regaled me with stories of his native city, pointing out its best features on the huge map on his wall. I learned about his son and his wife, knew that he lived in New Jersey and had once been a white-collar executive in Russia. But his English was poor and he never managed to improve it enough to make that transition here, he told me, so he opened a shoe repair shop in our New York suburban town, to which he commuted every morning.
One of the reasons I so love my little town — having grown up in the big cities of Toronto and Montreal — are the store and business owners who keep it real. Mrs. Reali’s tailor shop is now (ugh) an art gallery, as is Alma Snape Florist. Who needs that much art? But Gregg still runs the hardware store his grandfather founded in 1904 and Hassan sells amazing cheese and Aqeel is a helpful pharmacist. I still miss Nikos, the gentle, talented jeweler who worked with Donna Karan — and who made to order a ring for the sweetie that I designed.
Of such men, and women, are communities made.
I was thinking of taking in my summer sandals this week. But Mike is gone. He had told me a year ago he wanted to sell his business, but there isn’t a stampede of people with his excellent skills willing to do physical labor. Now the shop is closed, a sign on the door telling us he retired May 29.
I’ll miss his cheerful hellos, his voicemail reminders — “I fix-it your shoes” — and his blaring Russian-language radio.
LAST year was a fabulous one for entrepreneurs, at least according to the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity released last month by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. “Rather than making history for its deep recession and record unemployment,” the foundation reported, “2009 might instead be remembered as the year business startups reached their highest level in 14 years — even exceeding the number of startups during the peak 1999-2000 technology boom.”
Another surprise is the age of these new entrepreneurs. According to the report, most of the growth in startups was propelled by 35- to 44-year-olds, followed by people 55 to 64. Forget Internet whiz kids in their 20’s. It’s the gray-heads who are taking the reins of the new startup economy. And if you thought minorities had been hit particularly hard by this awful recession, think again. According to the report, entrepreneurship increased more among African-Americans than among whites.
At first glance, all this seems a bit odd. Usually new businesses take off in good times when consumers are flush and banks are eager to lend. So why all this entrepreneurship last year?
In a word, unemployment. Booted off company payrolls, millions of Americans had no choice but to try selling themselves. Another term for “entrepreneur” is “self-employed.”
The True/Slant model has been that of “entrepreneurial” journalist. Sounds so sexy. You’re in charge! Buying a big shiny desk! Minions! Interns!
Not so much. I photocopied my tax return from 2009 today because I’m asking my local YMCA for financial assistance to use their gym and pool, as I did (and received) last year as well. I lost my last staff job in June 2006, from the Daily News, where I was a feature writer. My income last year was 25 per cent of my staff salary. Yeah, I feel really entrepreneurial.
I am grateful for my partner’s staff job and his health insurance that covers me.
I’m forming a company this month, $1,200, as I finalize my book manuscript; I’ve been told to buy libel insurance as well. Those pesky little details of self-employment can add up to serious coin; I had to write my accountant a check for $395 for filing my 2009 taxes before we could start the next round of expenditures. He will allow me to pay that $1,200 over a few months, and I appreciate his kindness. Right now, my income from T/S ends in 28 days and I have no work lined up.
I’ll find something. It’s what we do. You get good at bush-beating when it’s your only source of income. I’m one of millions of U6ers — the Bureau of Labor term for those who don’t even bother looking for a full-time job anymore.
But I’ve freelanced for years and have some good relationships, editors I’ve been writing for for years, sometimes decades. Millions of “entrepreneurs”, as Reich so eloquently points out, are toast. They didn’t choose that role and they don’t want it.
There is some bitter irony that while some workers get government-paid subsidy and retraining, most of us don’t. We have to re-tool on the fly, stitching our parachutes as we plummet.
“This is my investment in the future right now,” said Fabiana Lee, 26, an interior designer who lost her job in 2009. She has been selling at the Greenpoint market since its inception in October. After experimenting with cookies (too much competition), she has pared her offerings down to two: gorgeously browned empanadas and irresistibly twee “cake pops,” golf-ball-size rounds of cake perched on lollipop sticks. At the moment, they are her main source of income.
Young, college-educated, Internet-savvy, unemployed and hoping to find a place in the food world outside the traditional route, she is typical of the city’s dozens of new food entrepreneurs. As the next generation of cooks comes of age, it seems that many might bypass restaurant kitchens altogether. Instead, they see themselves driving trucks full of artisanal cheese around the country, founding organic breweries, bartering vegan pâtés for grass-fed local beef, or (most often) making it big in baking as the next Magnolia Bakery.
My single largest check this year is likely (I hope) to be a windfall, something I discovered through a lucky accident, and a helpful friend, over coffee at Christmas in Toronto with a former editor — a copyright lawsuit settlement in Canada. I hired (and paid) a researcher there to sniff out all my qualifying pieces, 132 in all. The maximum payout any one of us can get is $55,000. I doubt I’ll get anything like that, but it’s going to be a very welcome check.
We all, certainly the T/S crowd, know how difficult journalism has become as a primary source of income — I am struck, and saddened when I read emails or blog posts from young writers barely a few years into their careers who have already been canned, sometimes more than once; Michael Hastings, no graybeard, bemoans the sale of Newsweek, where he (precociously) has already worked.
What was once called, with chilling literalness, a hand-to-mouth existence has — ta-dah! — been reframed as ‘entrepreneurial.’ Sort of like calling a used car “pre-owned.” We were “pre-employed.”
Many of us now are “entrepreneurs”, whether we want to be or not.