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The Neighborhood Business Experience

It was 7:19pm. There I was, standing outside of Tarzian Hardware, its gate down and locked, the lights turned off. The store hours sign read Monday – Friday 8:30am – 7pm. I knocked on the window. I rattled the gate. I called the store from my cell phone with 8% battery remaining and could hear the ringing inside. No answer. I planned to leave a message in desperation in the hopes that someone would check voicemail overnight, but the mailbox was full. I was screwed.

The only copy of my apartment keys were inside.

I had brought them in an hour earlier to get dupes made, then left to run other errands. In my attempt to be efficient, I had made a fatal mistake: I never checked to see when the store closed. I’m accustomed to stores being open 24/7, certainly not closing at 7pm. Toto, we’re not in Manahttan anymore.

As I stood there hopeless, planning to ride the subway 45 minutes to stay overnight in my parents’ empty apartment (yeah, I had those keys!), I gave it one last ditch effort by Googling the store owner’s name in an attempt to find a home phone number. The store had only been closed for 20 minutes; the closing manager couldn’t be too far away, right?

Google turned up dry. I was out of options.

Just when I turned around to leave, I saw a man with a dog approaching the apartment building above the store. I had a game-time decision to make, and I went for it: “Excuse me,” I asked to his back as he put his keys in the front door.

“Yes?”

“I’m so sorry to bother you, but I was just wondering if you know the owners of this store.”

“I do.” Wow, Park Slopers are tight, I thought.

“Well do you happen to have their phone number? I didn’t know what time they closed and the only copy of my house keys are inside.” I was embarrassed to say it out loud.

“I have the keys to the store,” he said, and blood started coursing through my veins again.

“I can’t believe you have the keys to the store,” I exclaimed. “What luck!” He tied up his dog to a hydrant and got down on the ground to unlock the gate and the door.

As he undid the last lock, he looked up at me. “I’m the owner.”

Dumbfounded. Seriously?! THIS is Brooklyn.

Once inside, he found the copies of my keys under the counter along with the several screwdrivers I had put aside earlier to buy when I came back. When he was ringing me up and the cost was rising, he generously asked, “Did you mean to buy this brand? These are professional grade tools.” I thanked him for his honesty and told him that I was replacing some of my old and broken stuff, and a salesperson had helped me find these. “And these are the ones he told you to get?” He almost seemed upset that the guy had upsold me.

“I’m fine with these. I’ll never have to replace them again,” I said, grateful that he had been there to save me and eager not to shortchange him now.

As he finished up, I asked him his name (John) and his story (family business since 1921 that he now runs). I told him my name, said I was new to the neighborhood, and assured him that he’d be seeing a lot of me.

As we walked out and he closed up, I was struck by something: in 29 years, I’ve never introduced myself to a shop owner before. I’ve never cared to. I have greatly treasured my anonymity in the big city and have rarely engaged in small talk anywhere I’ve shopped. I’ve valued getting in and out quickly, silently, and mechanically. I truly don’t know why.

But I chose to move, chose to leave my native Manhattan with its deadly consumerist march and its Disneyfication and its hordes of tourists and multiplying big box chains. I wanted to live in a cozy neighborhood, to support its small businesses, to know its history and to become a part of it.

I’ve always wanted to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came. Where customer service is a moral obligation, not a business tactic.

I am home.

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  • http://www.vanshea.com Van Sedita

    Yeah great tale! I not only feel a coziness in the narrow tree lined streets of Brooklyn, but in the general vibe and helpfulness of it’s dwellers and shop owners.

    I can’t wait to get back there.

  • http://www.yahnyinlondon.com Amanda Wright

    I’ve recently moved and the things I will miss the most – is the relationships we’ve built up with our local shops. We not have been on first name basis with them all but we would always have a quick chat and some would give us discounts, round down prices or let us pay that fiver next time instead of paying small amounts by card (which costs small owners more). We rewarded them with our loyalty in return.
    I’m looking forward to getting to know our local shop owners in the next few years at our new place and totally agree with your sentiments about being in a place where people know your name / supporting small businesses.

  • http://twitter.com/urbanrob Rob Johnston

    Great story. Manhattan is not devoid of neighborhoods with caring businesses. Recently I left a job and we decided to save money by doing our own laundry (and no pressed shirts are needed for the time being). After a few weeks our local laundry called to make sure we were all right as they hadn’t seen us. It was awkward to say we were cutting back, but nice that it was noticed. SoHo West Village may be gong Disney, but that’s a layer atop the existing network of residents and businesses.

  • http://www.fashionherald.org/ Tricia

    that’s not just great customer service, that’s being a great neighbor! I love the boroughs.

  • http://jonathanpberger.com jonathanpberger

    Welcome to Brooklyn!

  • Njabulo Wela

    Great story!

  • Lou Rosenfeld

    What I love most about your story is that I can practically see Tarzian from my window. If you’re not so lucky next time you can crash on our couch.

  • http://www.slappyintheface.com Gina aka Slappy

    That is nine kinds of awesome! When it is all said and done .. it’s the people that really matter.