Margaret Hair: Independent woes, nationwide


Margaret Hair

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

— 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?


Scott Wedel 9 years, 3 months ago

And that is exactly the problem, A person who never went to that store expressing regret for a locally owned store closing.

And it wasn't benign neglect by customers that caused the Merchant of Sandwich to close, but a nationwide sandwich chain opening nearby which cut deeply into his business. People buy coffee from Starbucks and then complain when the locally run coffee shop goes out of business.


corduroy 9 years, 3 months ago

Honestly though, I never saw an ad for Merchant of Sandwich. If people don't know its there, they won't go. Unfortunately. I went there a few times but I'm usually in downtown for lunch so its rather out of the way.


Jstclair 9 years, 3 months ago

It's the case out here on the West Coast too. I live in LA and my favorite bookstore, Dutton's, is one of a few places that define a cultural hub here: a place LA can be proud to claim. They sell local music, they post the obits of prominent writers, they have a wonderful children's section, readings on the terrace across the street from the huge Coral trees that line San Vincente in Brentwood. And the owner is a composer/Renaissance man who has come from a family tradition of booksellers. I go there for my books and coffee, but much more in terms of soul food. It will close its doors when the lease is up in a year or two, and so will go one of the class-act features that define that neighborhood.


JazzSlave 9 years, 3 months ago

The Elliot Bay Book Company in Pioneer Square in Seattle was one of my favorite haunts when I was living in the Northwest. Sounds similar (although probably larger) than Margaret's joint. Typical monthly Seattle run: Pike's Place Market, Uwajimaya, Bud's Jazz Records, Elliot Bay Book Company.


snowysteamboat 9 years, 3 months ago

This is a cycle and will come back around again.

This article is probably a bit long for most of you folks but provides an interesting historical perspective on chains.


Requires free registration

Posting comments requires a free account and verification.