Why ma and pa stores don’t have to disappear

Posted in Travel at 22:33 by RjZ

I first started hearing about the death of the Ma and Pa store in Germany. Independent businesses in Germany are called Tante Emma Läden, “Aunty Emma stores.” Just like the U.S., these are the tiny grocers, hardware stores and restaurants free of franchising and chains and the homogenization we see so much of the world over.

There was a Tante Emma Laden not far from my home in Munich, Germany. Conveniently located in the neighborhood just a few blocks from hundreds of suburban homes was this tiny grocer run by an elderly woman. Inside one could find a wide range of products all neatly arranged behind the counter. The shopper comes in and selects items Aunty Emma would gather them up from behind the counter and place them in a bag for you. Just charming.

About the same distance from my home there was also a chain grocery called Preisfux “Price Fox.” The Price Fox carried all the same things as the Aunty Emma in a typical brightly lit store, much smaller than the same kind in the U.S., but otherwise similar. Shoppers walk up and down aisles and select what they want; place them in a cart and bring them up to the check out on their own. In Germany, checkers are allowed to remain seated while they slide your items over the red laser scanner and shoppers are expected to bag their own groceries in their own bags. Not so charming.

Except that Price Fox was open more hours, had a larger selection by far, cost a little less and the checkers were usually pleasant enough seeing as all they had to do was sit there. Meanwhile, Aunty Emma seems to have grown tired of bagging groceries for so long for all those reserved Germans. She long since gave up being friendly. For customers it’s easier to choose one Bavarian knödel from another in her store because there is only the one to choose from, but that didn’t stop Aunty Emma from becoming irritated at you if you asked about another brand.

It was common in Germany to lament the disappearance of such stores but I was hardly surprised when this one closed. The fact is, Germans could be disappointed about these stores closing, but even they weren’t willing to put up with all the inconveniences associated with actually supporting them.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Folks who live in Boulder, Colorado are only rarely the hippies that the rest of the world thinks they are. Instead, they’re frequently highly educated and earn good salaries. Boulderites still pride themselves on their reputation for individuality and while there are many chain stores here, just like everywhere else, they are clearly frowned upon by those who long to keep the liberal reputation Boulder has earned. It’s easy for the people of Boulder to be so picky though. Here, independent stores lead the way for how good stores should be run, chain or not.

Take McGuckin Hardware for example. This huge hardware store near downtown Boulder has everything. Their selection is simply huge. So huge that each aisle has a clerk who manages it. He or she is responsible for everything down the aisle and can help you find just what you’re looking for, make sure it’s in stock or tell you when it will come in. They carry items that other hardware stores don’t and they actually know what that little gadget you’re looking for does. Sometimes McGuckin’s costs a bit more. Sometimes it doesn’t, but most of the time, I’m glad to pay a little extra as thanks for all the trips they’ve saved me by avoiding having to look around. I save gas that way too.

The Video Station is another standout. This large video store carries all the latest movies just like the chains do. In addition to those you can find classic art films and old black and white movies. Out of print videos and hard to find documentaries each have their own section. They have instructional cooking videos, foreign films in Yiddish and even climbing videos. Sure there is a market for climbing videos in Boulder, Colorado but no other video store has noticed it.

One of my favorite independents is Mt. Sun Brewery (sorry, they don’t seem to have a website!) Now practically a chain with two restaurants, both in Boulder, the Mt. Sun is staffed by quirky dressed servers who represent Boulder traditions well. They serve dozens of excellent beers fresh from the tap, and delicious pub food, all at a remarkably reasonable price. Mt. Sun responds to the local market with a wide variety of vegetarian choices and liberal system of service where the staff is required to have worked in the kitchen before becoming a server, everyone shares tips and service is terrible for three minutes every night at 10 pm when they gather for their nightly beer. Diners and drinkers cheer them on.

Why are these independents so successful when others are failing? Because they get it. It isn’t being independent that makes them successful. It’s being good. McDonald’s is good at offering the exact same thing the world over and (for some reason) people value that. Customers will pay for what they value, whether it’s service, variety, quality or even consistency. Good independent stores like McGuckin’s, The Video Station and Mt. Sun are successful in spite of the chains with which they compete because they offer something better. The only thing Aunty Emma was offering outside of poor selection and a bitter frown was nostalgia. Unfortunately, shoppers in Munich found nostalgia alone hard to swallow.


  1. Julia Joun said,

    October 6, 2005 at 16:30

    Couldn’t resist my nitpicking impulse. It’s “Video Station,” not “The Video Store.”

  2. RjZ said,

    October 6, 2005 at 16:39

    Thanks, don’t know how that happened. Duly updated.

  3. Penelope said,

    October 6, 2005 at 18:19

    Gee, and nitpicking is what I do for a living. Sorry I missed that! Oh, well, I suppose I’m like the maid who never cleans her own house.

  4. gina said,

    October 18, 2005 at 14:43

    speaking of nitpicking….you missed something!


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    March 30, 2011 at 16:59

    [...] threat of cartels is a scary one, but as I wrote about some time ago, there’s no reason, especially here in Boulder, Colorado, to assume that we will lose our [...]

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