Margaret Hair's column appears Fridays in the 4 Points arts and entertainment section in the Steamboat Today
. Contact her at 871-4204 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Steamboat Springs Last week, I returned to North Carolina and spent an afternoon in my old store, a place called The Skylight Exchange that sells old books and new sandwiches.
Like most independently run businesses, Skylight is a quirky place - with no corporate oversight and left to their own devices, self-sustaining store owners have the tendency to branch off from normalcy to give their place a special, worn-in feel.
This particular store has been around 20 years, has built its menu to include more than 50 sandwiches (at least half of which you can't get anywhere else) and has fought declining revenues caused by the big-name chains nearby. It is, like a lot of other independent shops and restaurants, in an unbreakable slump.
No matter how good your food, or how good your stories, or how many cardboard Elvis's adorn your place, a one-man lunch counter just can't compete with a nationwide chain of bagel shops.
So when I got back to Steamboat last Thursday to find out that The Merchant of Sandwich was closing two days later, the story of a long-running, tiny little shack with killer food closing down hit close to home.
I never ate at The Merchant (only found out about it a few weeks ago). But hearing it described made me homesick (and kind of hungry, from the sandwiches other Pilot & Today staffers occasionally brought back to the office).
It's not easy to make a good sandwich. It takes time, and the good ones can't be mass-produced. The result would be soggy bread, chewy cheese and slimy bacon. (I know this, because I've tried eating reheated versions of Skylight sandwiches. I've seen misguided college students swear that a barbecue chicken melt will be just as good cold or nuked. You try to warn them, and they just don't listen.)
You can't make that kind of food fast - which is why, unless you have a sit-down restaurant with other meal options, you can't make money off it. Only an independent store is willing to take the risk (because that risk, and making good food people want, is worth it). But when rent soars and patience is short, that risk is destined to fail unless it's backed by immense local support.
Seeing that local support dwindle in three years of working at Skylight, and seeing the same thing happen in independent shops and restaurants from D.C. to Steamboat, it's hard not to wonder if small-staffed operations can last at all.
And when all the old merchants of food, books, music, shoes - anything, really - are gone, where are you going to get a decent sandwich?