Small towns beget interesting biz pairings

Admittedly, I am not much of a traveler – at least not to vacationesque sites or to do lengthy sightseeing that takes me for days away from our small town. As I have written before, growing up playing an active role on our family’s dairy farm put me on some kind of invisible tether from which I cannot seem to slip. Not having a substitute pianist to play in my absence at church on Sunday also eliminates the luxury of taking time off to go somewhere for a long or short weekend.

That leaves the option of regional travel, which translates to places where I go for work purposes, attend trainings to earn continuing education credits to keep my professional license active, and out-of-town medical appointments to which I take my daughter or someone else who needs transporting.

Within those parameters, one of my favorite things to do is to patronize locally-owned businesses in other small towns. Eating breakfast or lunch at some local haunt, the equivalent of Athens’ Copper Kettle, brings me the greatest pleasure. In addition to the interesting combinations of overflowing omelets, the waitress who keeps my coffee overflowing is often best the source of hometown information on what’s what and who’s doing who. I leave with a sense of gratitude for my own community’s issues, scandals, eyesores, resident characters and assets.

Getting ahold of another community’s newspaper is also educational. While sopping up my over-easy eggs with toast and eavesdropping on the conversations around me, I like to read through and ponder which members of the cast of characters in that community most closely resemble the cast of characters in my own community.

While certain roles are predictable in most small towns, you sometimes run into some refreshingly original folks who are successfully coloring outside of the lines in perspective-changing ways. They offer approaches to small town business and living that you just couldn’t find at a tourist trap. Such impromptu road trip education sessions are priceless.

Something I have noticed in small communities is there are a lot of strange-bedfellow business partnerships. What do I mean by that? Real estate constraints and budgetary restrictions conspire to bring together diverse businesses operating out of the same shop: two can do business cheaper than one; remarkably diverse businesses, at that.

I’m not talking the “Duds & Suds” laundry mat that gained national attention by putting in an adjacent bar (great idea, incidentally, as every time I visit a public laundry facility, I feel the need for a drink). No, I’m referencing unique, unintentional partnerships that spring up to meet community needs.

Locally, we have a gas station where you can rent movies and/or a tanning booth. We’ve also had an automotive repair shop with a florist business inside of it. In nearby Athens, you can buy a hammer and sandpaper at the same place where you get your prescription filled – Larmour’s Pharmacy. Meanwhile in Marshall, the popular “Jill’s Addiction” vintage clothing and household items business got its start in the showroom of a family member’s plumbing business. Go figure. And while you’re scratching your head over that one, consider the golf driving range, batting cage and mini-putt course in Battle Creek that sells cake and candy supplies.

The variations on business buddying are limitless. One time, I went to a tire repair shop on the east side of the state only to find it also inhabited by a seller of candles and essential oils. Even big box home improvement retailer Menard’s has gotten into the act. Makes perfect sense to be able to purchase greeting cards, Christmas ornaments and personal hygiene supplies the same place where you buy landscaping supplies, toilets and lumber.

I am in no position to talk as I have met with people off-hours at the funeral home where I work to help them with resumes and cover letters.

It seems regional travel has made me privy to interesting, although non-postcard-worthy aspects of small town life. Perhaps my time and money travel limitations are not really limitations, but rather a reminder of the abundance of the real, endearing community treasures located in the lesser-traveled parts of Michigan. Remember that on the road.

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