The village store in the town where I grew up is what I think city folk envision when they plan an escape to the country. It is right in the center of town, up the street from the church and the little schoolhouse. There is no parking lot. You just pull your car to the side of the road and make your way up the two granite steps in front of the store. You push open the heavy red wood door and an old-fashioned bell hanging above the door announces your arrival. The old wooden floorboards have weathered the footsteps of the town for almost 200 years. If you stop in early on a weekday morning, you will likely catch the standard group of townspeople nursing cups of coffee as they discuss the business of the town: a situation at the dump, the volunteer fire department needing new equipment, or the politics of an upcoming election.
It would be easy for this village store to be just like any other convenience store. It would be easy to stock the shelves full of Bud Light and potato chips, beef jerky and quarts of milk. It would also be easy to write the store off: the population it is serving has lingered between 1,000 and 1,500 since it was first established in the early 1800s. If you run out of milk or need an extra cup of sugar, it is the only place in town you can go. They have built in demand and that could make it inviting to just kick back and take the path of least resistance in running the store.
That, however, is not the path that the owners of the village store chose. They have turned owning the village store in a little town into an art. They have one of the best selections of beer in the state. They stock eggs laid by chickens right up the road and maple syrup made from the town’s maple trees. Their honey is from local beehives, and they stock local ice cream, coffee, and wine. They partnered with a local chef to create an amazing selection of healthy pre-made meals for busy townspeople rushing home from a long day of work.
They chose the difficult path, a path that requires creative thinking and the emotional work of finding just the right products to take up the precious space on their few shelves. They did not have a guarantee that running a store the way they chose would produce more revenue. I have a feeling that was not necessarily the basis for their decision. Nor do I think they did it because they wanted to get written up in the paper or featured in some foodie magazine. I think they did it because they could not imagine running a store in any other way.
The work that they undertook is not easy. Once they started down their path, they could not turn back. If they did, everyone would notice that they have given up.
This is why so few people turn their business into art. There is tremendous fear associated with giving up on the old formula and creating a brand new one. There is no guarantee that it will work and we tend to like to walk down paths that have a predetermined destination.
Even more fear inducing though, is thinking about what will happen when you do succeed. Once you succeed, you have to keep it up. Once you are known for having an amazing beer selection, you can never go back to just carrying Bud Light. Once you have established that you are great (or your store is great or your product is great), you have to keep being great. People find it much easier to be consistently mediocre and surprise people with slight movements into the territory of great every once and a while, then to be great all the time.
Each time I cross over the threshold to the store and hear the bell clinging over my head, it feels like everything in the world is as it should be. Work should always be transformed into that type of art.