My Brilliant Second Career: We never thought we’d be grocers

Brian and I were in-debt New Yorkers looking to buy feta in a small town. Instead, we bought a new life

Topics: My Brilliant Second Career, Life stories, Great Recession,

My Brilliant Second Career: We never thought we'd be grocers (Credit: Shutterstock)
This is a series about people who stared down the Great Recession -- and reinvented themselves along the way. Do you have a great Plan B success story? Post it on Open Salon, tag it "My Brilliant Second Career," and we might publish it on Salon -- and pay you for it. A version of this story originally appeared on Katie McCaskey's Open Salon blog.

George Bowers was a New Yorker who died at the turn of last century. It turns out, he would change my life. But back in 2007, I’d never even heard of him. At the time I lived with my boyfriend, Brian, in New York City. Two things kept me awake at night: overwhelming student loan debt, and the fantasy that in a rising real estate market I could cash in and make it disappear.

The only place I could afford to purchase a house was in the small Virginia town I’d left 22 years earlier. I’d recently visited it, and, viewing it with fresh eyes, was impressed with its character and walkable historic downtown. In early 2008 Brian and I took the Amtrak down. We bought our first house, an 1866 stone cottage. We rode home giddy.

The Monday we returned to the city, Brian lost his job. In retrospect, this shouldn’t have come as a surprise. The small architectural firm he worked for served very high-end clients. And we were at the start of a national — and eventually personal — implosion. After some debate we resolved to move south. Brian would work on the house, and I would continue to telecommute to my job in Boston.

One night, we were making dinner and realized we didn’t have any feta cheese. In the city we could step outside at any hour for such a need. Baguettes, olive oil — those were all available for purchase at any corner grocery. But that seemed laughably bourgeois now. The following day, as I was retelling this to a talkative coffee shop owner, he said there used to be a grocery store next door.

He told me of George Bowers, a man who hopped the train from New York City to set up a prosperous grocery here in the 1870s. In 1881 George expanded to his second, and final location, which was next to the present-day coffee shop.

I casually noted that it would be good to have a neighborhood grocery again, and thought that was the end of the conversation. But a short time later the coffee slinger and his New York transplant wife decided to reopen Bowers’ store: Would we like to be the “passive” minority partners? It seemed like an opportunity to invest in our new community and solve the where-can-we-walk-to-buy-feta “problem” at the same time.

It was great: We rebuilt George’s original location as a turn-of-the-century grocery, complete with dark wood and marble; we featured local and specialty foods. We “reopened” George’s old grocery to much fanfare.

The business partnership, however, was a disaster. We discovered our partners could barely tolerate each other. They couldn’t keep agreed-upon schedules and regularly disappeared. To complicate matters, they also owned the 130-year-old building our shared business paid to renovate. Their enthusiasm for the project quickly centered on collecting the rent.

A month after we opened they closed their coffee shop next door. “Bad economy,” they explained. The closure left our fledgling business deserted three blocks from any other business. Overnight the market crashed and the money dried up.

Our partners turned their attention to their roster of ramshackle rental houses and decided to hold George hostage: “We’re the majority owners. We’re closing this business unless you pay us to leave.”

So there we had it: two bad choices. Pay these jerks to leave, or service a bank note on capital improvements made to their building and the start-up costs of a 3-month-old business.

In the end, we paid them to leave. This decision put tremendous additional debt burden on the business each month. Before we could celebrate taking control of the new business, we were met with new challenges.

I lost my job as content strategy director for a banking start-up. We stopped work on the house. Our heater died during the coldest winter on record. The cat’s water dish froze solid inside our old, drafty house. Twice.

When we could no longer afford health insurance, we bought life insurance. Eventually we couldn’t afford that. We drained our savings and maxed out our credit cards. Those damn student loans still caused me sleepless nights.

Besides, we had a business to save. Our inventory disappeared because we were eating it to survive. Our electricity and water were shut off. It got bleak. Very bleak. But we kept going.

Eventually, things started to change. A community of strangers started showing up in our shop. They became customers. Some became regulars. Some became friends.

We dismantled the parts of the business we didn’t like, and worked to grow in new directions.We borrowed bridge funds from our local micro-lender. We were recipients of generosity from unexpected sources. We hustled. We got great advice and experienced a few lucky breaks. We bought more inventory. We fixed our heater. We got current on our bills.

On May Day, 2009, we crawled from the wreckage and got married at the courthouse under a smiling portrait of John Wayne.

This summer we moved to a better location. We’re in an old schoolhouse at the intersection of our neighborhood and downtown. We expanded with a cafe and patio beer garden. We feature live music four nights a week. We still work very hard. But now, George is working for us, too.

Starting a business in a small town continues to teach me many lessons. I have a new appreciation for people across this country who work so hard and sacrifice so much to operate independent businesses. These are tough and determined people. Every day they work against damning statistics of failure. I know; I’ve lived it.

George Bowers Grocery has also taught me a great deal about community. Specifically, how tightly connected we are, economically and emotionally. We are grateful for our neighbors’ ongoing support. We are also thankful to live in a community that values entrepreneurship enough to put the money on the table when the banks would not (thanks, Staunton Creative Community Fund).

George has taught me how much I value living in a walkable city where my economic efforts directly impact the health and happiness of my neighbors. It’s a role I didn’t imagine but have grown to love.

Katie McCaskey is co-owner of George Bowers Grocery in Staunton, Virginia. Her book forthcoming, "Urban Escapee: How to Ditch the Commute, Build a Business, and Revitalize Main Street," will be published next year.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>