Uncle Pat and the Failed Grocery Store

Sometimes an old thought or memory comes to us, without apparent provocation. It interrupts our routine, maybe it makes us pause for a moment and smile (or sigh or frown).

These last couple of days I’ve been remembering Uncle Pat. My strongest memory of him, and the one that has persisted through the years, is as a very young girl, watching him sit in a rocker, seeing his incessant smile and thinking what a gentle, kind man he was. He was wearing a hat and smoking, using a plastic holder for his cigarette, and he seemed happy and content. (These were the days when more people smoked than didn’t, but the plastic holder was a unique element.) Pat died before I was much older, so really that’s my only direct memory of him. My other memories are of what people said about him.

Patrick Murphy owned a grocery store for a time in rural Missouri, around the Arrow Rock-Marshall area. I don’t know how long he owned it, but I know what happened to it. It failed, miserably. As the story goes, Uncle Pat could never say no to a child. Over time, his less-fortunate customers figured that out (and probably some of the fortunate ones, too), and they would send their children to do their grocery shopping. When the little one didn’t have enough cash to pay for the groceries, Uncle Pat would say that was OK, he’d put it on credit and Mom or Dad could pay him later. Later was often a long time in coming. Eventually Uncle Pat couldn’t pay for his inventory or the monthly bills, and the store went out of business.

The adult relations around me would end the story by shaking their heads and calling Uncle Pat various forms of foolish. “He was too softhearted to be a businessman,” said one. “Those people robbed him blind,” said another. “He just didn’t have a head for business,” said a third. “If someone leaves money out in the road, who can blame the person who picks it up?”

I absorbed the following lesson from Pat’s story: to succeed in business meant you had to be mean to protect yourself from other people, who were generally untrustworthy and unwilling to help you out.

I didn’t particularly like that idea in my head, so I spent time in my formative years battling my desire to run my own business (or become the next great American novelist or poet; whatever) with the thought that I wasn’t qualified: I wasn’t hard enough, tough enough; I was too trusting and took people at face value too often. The fact that I was a young woman didn’t enter my thinking as a deterrent until other people told me it was a deterrent, but, so, there was that, too.

The teenage me was still conflicted, as teens generally are, but I had become enamored with the idea of being an entrepreneur, in particular, a publisher. I figured no one else would publish my writing, so I might as well start a publication (thank you for the idea, Greg Wardle). I took Greg’s idea for an underground newspaper — oh for the days of the twenty-four-hour Kinko’s — and ran with it for nine years, turning it into an independent arts and literary magazine and learning editing, graphic design, and typesetting along the way.

I also learned, as I pursued other ventures in the years that followed, that you don’t have to be mean to run a business well, but you do have to understand other people’s motivations and needs, along with your own, and figure out a way to best accommodate both sides. And you have to get paid, of course, not just to cover your costs, or even your costs plus a percentage of profit, but costs plus profit plus revenue for future growth. You have to learn and hone your craft. You have to know marketing and sales. You have to understand basic accounting (truly, a horror).

I’ve now been a small business owner and entrepreneur for, gosh, over twenty-three years. I also have continued to write, with few expectations beyond my own satisfaction. And as I think about Uncle Pat and what people said about him and the failed grocery store, I remember my one strong memory of him, smiling, happy. I don’t think Uncle Pat gave a shit what they thought — he was happy with his life and at peace with the decisions he had made — and that is the one lesson we all should take with us.

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