The community power of family-run businesses

BY Scott Grills

12th Jul 2023 Life

The community power of family-run businesses

What do we lose if we allow family businesses to close? One writer reflects on local merchants' community role, even as big companies threaten their existence

I grew up in and around Sharp’s department store on Front Street in Campbellford, Ontario. It was run by my maternal grandmother, Mrs Sharp, and when I was growing up in the 1960s and Seventies, I was one of various family members who worked there occasionally.

I learned the difference between nylon and metal zippers, which fabrics should be cut and which needed to be torn, and how to sort patterns and match colours of embroidery floss.

I also learned something much more important: the place of a family business in the community.

"I also learned something much more important: the place of a family business in the community"

Mrs Sharp knew her customers. She heard the rumours of domestic violence; of women who had little money to buy essentials; of families struggling to care for sons who had returned from war suffering with what was then called “shell shock”; of unplanned pregnancies and the need for the discreet purchase of certain sewing patterns to help prevent gossip.

End-of-the-bolt fabrics and discarded patterns made their way into the hands of mothers whose children needed clothes for the start of the school year.

Widows without cash for undergarments bought them on credit, sometimes in tears: “I hate to ask. It has been so hard since Charlie died. You know I am good for it. Thank you. God bless you.”

It takes a village

Family business fishmonger serving up cups of musselsExtra helpings from a local fishmonger helped one new family to navigate a tight household budget

When my partner and I were still in university, we became parents. Our budget was tight—at the time, inflation was more than 11 per cent and interest rates were above 18 per cent.

Still, we saved so we could afford the occasional splurge.

We benefitted from the kindness of local merchants who understood that treating every customer equally did not mean they were treated the same way.

The local fishmonger, who supplied lobster and crab to steak houses and immaculate scallops to a French restaurant, showed incredible thoughtfulness.

We were regulars because our two-year-old had developed a passion for mussels normally reserved for ice cream and chocolate cake.

Without fail, after the mussels were weighed and priced, the scoop went back into the tank—“Just a few extra to make up for the ones that don’t open.”

On one visit, a staff member asked if we had seen the Scottish salmon that had come in that morning. “Looks beautiful,” I said. “Just the mussels, thanks.”

"Local merchants understood that treating every customer equally did not mean they were treated the same way"

He wondered if I could make use of some tails: “The restaurant only wants the best steaks, and I really don’t have much of a market for these.” Two tails went into the bag, no charge. “Mussels for the little guy and a treat for you and your wife. On the house.”

When my wife was expecting our second child, she developed a deep craving for a local Chinese restaurant’s version of tai dop voy, a mixture of meats, shrimp and vegetables.

Even though they rarely saw us, the owners always remembered us.

One evening, well into my wife’s eighth month, I ordered tai dop voy to go. Since he was up, I took our young son with me. It was a chillingly damp December night.

The next thing I knew, we were seated at the bar and my son had a soft drink in his hand. Our order came and I settled up. The bag was heavier than normal.

“We are closing soon,” the server said. “There is some fried rice in there that would be thrown out. Enjoy. Have a healthy baby.”

When I got home, there was not only fried rice but also an order of chow mein and two orders of tai dop voy.

In search of community

Local farmer's marketUnlike big businesses, local merchants can take the time to get to know their customers' needs

That was many years ago. But those small kindnesses from people who ran local businesses made a difference. It wasn’t just the savings—though they were appreciated. Customers were seen as more than a source of revenue; we were members of the community that the business served.

These days, I’m not sure many people associate airlines, mobile phone companies or grocery stores with “service” to the community.

Their customers are mostly anonymous, and their life circumstances are relevant only to the extent that the apps they use help the companies determine which products to display prominently.

Once again, many of us have been forced to tighten our belts. Fresh fruit? Maybe we’ll buy some next week. Bacon or eggs, not both. But the generosity I experienced all those years ago hasn’t disappeared.

I witnessed it recently at my local farmers’ market. A young family—it could have been my crew years ago—was debating whether to add another zucchini to the order (eavesdropping is an occupational hazard of mine).

"Customers were seen as more than a source of revenue"

The farmer serving them said, “Sorry I forgot, I have so many zucchinis this year. If you buy two, you get another for free. Pick out any one you like.”

I like to think the farmer was being ethically flexible: no prices on the produce, but everything is fairly priced. Fair in the sense that community, caring and kindness are all part of the merchant-client relationship.

The kindness of merchants during leaner times is a sign of something deeper: we are all making our shared way together.

For my part, I will continue to support farmers’ markets and family-run restaurants. I am happy to pay a “fair” price, knowing that there may be an extra cob of corn for the widow buying her eggs a half-dozen at a time.

My grandmother would have expected it of me.

© 2022, Scott Grills. From “A family run business will always have a special place in my community,” The Globe and Mail (October 27, 2022),

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