A few days ago, I stopped by a neighborhood restaurant for lunch. I arrived a little early, and that gave me a chance to watch the crowd.

Or, should I say, the lack of a crowd?

It’s no secret the tottering economy is taking its toll on jobs, businesses, and just about everything else. But to sit and watch the actual impact on a non-chain, non-corporate business for a few minutes was breathtaking.

This is a tightly packed restaurant that generally packs them in for lunch; that day, I could have driven a motorcycle through the place and not hit anything.

While I was waiting and watching, the owner walked by, and I asked how his business was doing. He smiled but looked like it took some effort.

“Look around — that tells you everything. People who used to eat here three or four days a week now stop in one day and either brown-bag it or fast-food it the other days. They’re just not coming in.”

As he spoke, a surplus of waitstaff mingled about, not even trying to look busy. Surveying the scene, this small-business owner had that look of exasperation and pain you feel when you recognize a problem but don’t know
the solution.

Target and Walmart are having their problems, too, but does anyone doubt they’ll pull through all of this just fine? They’re big enough that they can still borrow money from someone, and they still have enough marketing clout to get their message out. And GM and Chrysler — well, apparently they’re too big to fail, so we’re bailing them out ourselves.

Neighborhood businesses, though, typically aren’t so lucky. Whether we’re talking about mom-and-pop restaurants or retailers or plumbers, these businesses often function hand-to-mouth when it comes to economic planning.
Saving for tough times is important, but even when neighborhood businesses are trying to save money for a rainy day, the rain already falling often soaks up the savings.

And when you’re a small business, it only takes a mistake or two to put yourself on death’s door — and that’s when the economy is going great guns.
So what is all of this to you or me or anyone else?

If you believe in the importance of small businesses as part of the fabric of our neighborhood, this is the time to prove it. The businesspeople who have their roots in our neighborhood, who hire our neighbors and who volunteer at our schools and churches need our help.

Given a choice, if there was ever a time to shop locally, this is it.
Because if we don’t, we could spend the next few years walking or driving by lots of empty storefronts that used to be staffed by people we know selling services and products we need.

Another neighborhood business owner I spoke with recently said it best:
“Something’s gotta give,” he said. “Either the economy gets better
soon, or …”

He didn’t finish the sentence, but I think we all know what he meant.