When A Small Business You Like Lets You Down

There’s a small business in my neighborhood that I’ve been a happy customer of for four years. Nominally they fix shoes, and I’ve brought shoes there with good results, but the employees are also up for taking care of random small problems that arise. I’ve taken my iPhone in there for a consultation as well as my travel stroller, when a wheel on it broke; one of the guys figured out the problem and set the stroller to rights on the spot, free of charge.

They’re good, trustworthy people, in other words, and I’ve raved about them to other locals. Until now, I’ve never had a problem.

Here’s my problem.

Back in early July, I brought in a pair of boots that needed more love than I could give them. The boots were relatively new; I had bought them on sale at winter’s end after a rat ran over my feet while I was wearing my only other pair.

To be honest, I can’t even remember why I brought them in, what the problem was exactly, because it’s been so long since I’ve seen the boots. They disappeared behind the counter and the proprietor, with a smile, told me they would be ready soon. $20 to fix them, he said. One week.

At first it didn’t matter so much that every time I went in to check on them, which I began doing in mid- to late-July, the proprietor apologized and said, “Just a couple more days.” It was summer! Who needed boots? Besides, he looked haggard, overwhelmed, like Sisyphus. The last thing I wanted to do was add unnecessarily to his stress.

Then July’s muggy heat faded into August’s and I realized a month had gone by. I began to visit the store more frequently, to smile less when I inquired after my boots. “Just ten minutes,” the proprietor assured me each time. “I only need ten minutes to finish them. Come back tomorrow?”

In September, I began to feel like a chump. What was I doing wrong? Other patrons had no doubt dropped off shoes, picked them up, and worn them out entirely in the time I had spent like Eve Harrington outside Margo Channing’s stage door. What did they have that I didn’t? Were they more forceful, more profane? Did their problems pose more interesting challenges, or simply more lucrative ones?

I went in on Monday, having been promised, yet again, that they would be ready, and once more I was greeted by the proprietor’s chagrined expression.

“It’s been almost three months!” I said.

“Wednesday,” he promised. “Wednesday.”

In response, I put on my stern face, the one that can, alone, make Babygirl cry, and drew myself up like Eve Harrington getting ready to take over for Margo Channing.

“What if they’re not ready Wednesday?” I said. “You’ve told me to come back over and over again, and I’ve come back, and I’ve been patient. But what happens this time if you don’t keep your word?”

“Wednesday,” he said, shaking his head, opening the door for me. “Wednesday.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll come back Wednesday. And if they’re not ready, I’m just taking them.”

He switched to nodding and held the door open for me as I tried to sweep out like a diva and at least succeeded in not tripping.

Today Tomorrow is Wednesday. I haven’t gone by yet. I do really have to take my boots back, regardless of whether anything has been done, right? But even if the boots are finally ready — a possibility so tantalizing I’m scared to envision it — should I pay the $20 as promised, because he’s a hard-working small businessman and he needs it more than I do? Or do I withhold payment because of how I’ve been treated?


Note: The image comes from an actual 1934, Oscar-nominated cartoon called Jolly Little Elves, and if those elves look like anti-Semitic caricatures, it’s probably because they are! (It was the Depression. Whaddaya going to do?) The short is cute anyway.

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