a sense of belonging

photograph by  Emma Byrnes

photograph by Emma Byrnes

I love small business. I have always been a keen observer…I watch and notice things. I pick up on nuances and energy. Not in a psychic kind of way but more of an intuitive thing. As a child I loved the feeling of belonging that I got from walking along the strip of shops in our neighbourhood…I knew all of the shop names, the shopkeepers and many of them knew my name too, or at least knew me by sight. I would note the handwritten signage in a shop window, the faded patina on a milk bar wall, the way the shelves were neatly or haphazardly arranged, the way a particular shop owner would shuffle from out the back when a customer set the front door bell off. All of these details delighted me and, to be honest, they still do.

From my early days I sensed the despondency of the workers stacking shelves at Franklins supermarket - sensations that were in stark contrast to the warmth and connection I felt at the local family-owned grocery store, even though their tasks were relatively similar. What was it about the family-owned business that made such a difference? 

From when I was 14 until I was 22 my mum owned a fabulous little continental-style coffee house, in Sydney. My sister and I would work there on weekends and it was such a beautiful place to be. It was a tiny shop stuffed full to the brim with the finest continental delicacies – quality chocolate, jams, biscuits, freshly roasted coffee, French pastries, Austrian strudels...the list goes on. A couple of kids would always stick their heads in the door on their way home from school just to take a whiff of the heady aroma of freshly ground coffee. Mum employed my calligraphy skills to write all of the shop signage – a job I absolutely loved and to which I would take my most meticulous penmanship. Over Easter and Xmas the shop would be filled to the brim with amazing German gingerbreads and papier mache decorations. Locals would always peer in through the shop window to see our festive display. It was like a miniature Myer window.

Working behind the counter as a young adult was a terrific way to gain a greater understanding of human complexity. No two customers were the same. I learnt to work around the trickier personalities and became friends with people of all ages. Maybe it is the sense of belonging and the way it gets in under your skin that can make small business so rewarding. If I close my eyes now I can still smell, see, hear, taste and feel that special space - crammed full with memories.
What it evokes for me still informs my creative and everyday pursuits and I am very thankful for that experience.  

Some special businesses that I really love and that foster grassroots connections are:

  • Plump Organic Grocery - OK as a co-founder I am biased but Plump really is a special place that makes such a strong connection with the village that it operates in.
  • The Flower Exchange - These guys pour all of their love into their very own rural vegie patch and flower garden during the week and then on thursdays bring the weekly harvest to Melbourne. My favourite aspect of their business is the Flower Exchange. They don't sell their flowers but instead have chosen to "create community, share abundance and make conversation instead" by exchanging their flowers for something other than money. This is so up my alley as I am very interested in the notion of alternative economic systems and the benefits they have to those involved. Am looking forward to signing up for my first posy very soon.

Em x