When I picture myself in the center of a Hallmark movie, I can clearly see myself stopping by the Cookie Jar (Murder She Baked) for a pastry, grabbing a mocha at the coffee shop in Winter Love Story, or picking up a light-bulb at the hardware store from All of My Heart. What do all of these places have in common (aside from the fact that they are fictional)? They are local businesses that form the heart and soul of communities in Hallmark movies we know and love.
The reason why we love them so much is that wherever we live, we have businesses like these in our communities…in our Real Life. They are local spots that sponsor the town baseball teams, provide space for friends and family to celebrate big moments and small ones, and are cornerstones of our communities, sometimes with generations of history.
In the small town of Haddon Heights, New Jersey, where I grew up, the heart and soul of local shopping along Station Avenue, our “main street,” was and still is John’s Friendly Market. Mr. John Johnson, wearing his red jacket and tie, used to sit on a stool near the cash register, above a black-and-white checkered floor, saying “hi” to every customer and keeping my family’s ongoing tab, along with many others, on an index card behind the counter. Do any stores even let you keep tabs like that anymore, so families can settle up at the end of the month?
After babysitting, working the cash register at John’s Friendly Market was my first job. I loved this job—sharing the check-out duties with Betty, an elderly neighbor, and being at the epicenter of our small town. Mr. Johnson held court in his chair, greeting everyone by name, and was a wonderful employer. On a summer day, everyone in the community swung through for a popsicle or a sandwich. I made new friends outside of my Catholic school circle and loved being able to order any sandwich I wanted off the awesome deli list. And when I came back on a break from college and popped in to say a quick hello to Mr. Johnson, he’d tell the deli to “make Meghan a hoagie” (my favorite) and follow me around the store, filling up a basket of tasty cakes and other junk food while asking me if I was eating enough at school.
If this all sounds outrageously idyllic (or, dare I say, Hallmark) to you, you’re not alone; there is even a children’s book that took its inspiration for the grandpa in the story from the one and only Mr. Johnson! You can buy your copy here.
These local businesses and their owners make up the very fabric of our cities and towns and are what give our communities character. While we are doing are part to flatten the COVID-19 curve, a lot of the local businesses that we know and love are hurting right now. Over the weekend I took a stroll through my own Manhattan neighborhood, and it’s eerie to see once-bustling streets silenced and favorite stores boarded up. However, in the midst of these unusual sights, there were a few signs of life. The local bakery, Orwashers, which has been serving customers since 1916, was open. I got tears in my eyes at the normalcy of being able to order a NY bagel, toasted with cream cheese. Bagels are such a basic staple of the city, and it had been five weeks since I’d had a fresh one. The staff were covered in masks and gloves, as was I, and only three customers were allowed inside at a time, but the staff seemed grateful for the line of customers patiently waiting outside, and I was grateful to simply interact with another human being.
The farmers’ market was also open—albeit with its stands “socially distanced”—and I was able to buy fresh eggs from an upstate farm. And since it was Easter and I had family dinner plans via Zoom, I decided to splurge on a sweet treat for dessert at Magnolia Bakery, which was also open. These and other local businesses are creatively shifting their business models to support take-out, delivery, and new ways to meet customers where they are. Purchases like the few I made might not seem like much, but they add up. As we are able, let’s support them by continuing to give them our business—because we are all in this together.