(RoseMary and Gloria pose inside of Camille et Famille in Forest Park. Photo by David Pierini for the Forest Park Review. Below: Gloria and RoseMary pose inside Twice Again Resale in Maywood. Photo by Michael Romain for the Village Free Press).
Thursday, July 17, 2014 || By Michael Romain
In today’s post-recessionary business climate, one successful entrepreneur combines Wall Street savvy with Main Street decency
According to a recent study by the centrist Brookings Institution, about one-third of all American households (roughly 38 million people) live ‘hand-to-mouth’–or ‘paycheck-to-paycheck’. Perhaps most surprisingly, however, the study concludes that over two-thirds of them aren’t poor.
“There are quite wealthy people for whom today’s income is a real constraint on how much they can spend,” says Justin Wolfers, a Senior Fellow at Brookings.
This means that, while they may have assets–such as stocks, bonds and real estate–that translate into very real wealth, those assets are illiquid. They don’t translate into cash to pay the the bills or pay for food and other necessities, practically putting these nominally wealthy people into similar circumstances as the cash-strapped poor.
No surprise, then, that another Brookings Study, published in 2010, found that “by 2008 the number of suburban poor exceeded the poor in central cities by 1.5 million.” But unlike the centralized poverty of the cities, this new poverty, the study claimed, is much harder to confront by way of traditional government and nonprofit services.
This new post-recession reality has led to a rise in temporary employment, entrepreneurialism and non-monetary modes of exchange, such as bartering. And while cutthroat competition, quarterly earnings and impersonal profits may have been staples of the Wall Street booms of the 1990s and early 2000s, some economists suggest that, by necessity, certain Main Street intangibles such as collaboration, sharing and community-building may be trending right now in business models all across post-recession America.
All in the Family
For RoseMary Gange, the owner of Camille et Famille in Forest Park, those trending intangibles have been built into her business model since she opened her apparel and accessories boutique in Oak Park in 1990.
Loosely translated from the French, Camille et Famille means ‘Camille and family’. And from the beginning, the boutique was a family affair–everyone from her sons to her late mother-in-law had a hand in its operation. The kinship extends to her employees–a sentiment that is at odds with the dynamics of the larger economy.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the July unemployment rate in the US was 6.1 percent, but according to many economists that number doesn’t reflect the amount of people who simply dropped out of the workforce, were hired in only temporary positions or are underemployed.
It also doesn’t reflect the divergent state of the economy–as companies prosper, their employees struggle. Early this month, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which tracks the stock market performance of 30 blue chip companies, reached a milestone, soaring past 17,000 for the first time. And yet, according to a report by the National Employment Law Project, low-wage jobs have accounted for 44 percent of the job growth since the recovery four years ago, even though they only comprised 22 percent of the jobs lost from the recession.
In the 1990s, business was booming for Gange. She had opened two more stores–one in Oak Brook in 1994 and another in Park Ridge in 1998–in addition to the more than 4,000 square foot store in Oak Park. It was exhausting trying to operate all three locations at once, but for a time she did and both she and her employees reaped the rewards.
“The people who worked with me were like family,” Gange said. “If you were full-time, we offered you an insurance plan and a 401(K). You need to take care of people. One of my employees would’ve been bankrupt, because she needed heart surgery. But I had insurance for her. It wasn’t the most fabulous, but at least you were covered for major medical.
“If you don’t take care of people, why should they care about your business? I think that’s why [my employees] stay with me for so long. I don’t have a lot of turnover,” she said.
Gange’s affinity for her employees extended to her customers, many of whom she knows by name. She insists that the secret to her staying power hasn’t been accounting or budgeting or conducting inventory or pricing, although she’s mastered all of these areas.
“I can teach anybody how to price clothes and how to know the products, but you have to bring nice. You gotta bring nice. If you don’t like people, you shouldn’t be in retail,” she said.
All About the Nice
That nice is what made one recent afternoon reunion in Maywood so rich and sweet with nostalgia. Gange hadn’t seen Gloria Flagg in about four years, but Gloria peppered her former boss with questions about past customers and co-workers and their spouses and children. Despite the time apart, the two women hadn’t missed a beat.
Flagg worked part-time at Camille et Famille from about 1995 to 2000, but says the experience was enough to give her the skills and confidence to open a business of her own–Twice Again Resale Shop at 715 S. 5th Avenue in Maywood.
Flagg said that she uses many of Gange’s sales techniques in her own store. During Flagg’s employment with Gange, the door at the boutique was always open. Now, with a store of her own, she finds that she rarely if ever closes the door. If the door’s open, Gange said, people can just wander in; if it’s closed, it becomes just another small impediment that keeps them out.
“Do you still send the cards out?” Flagg asked Gange, referring to the notes of appreciation that Gange would mail out to her clientele twice a year. Gange said that she’s now advanced to email. She also calls to remind customers about store credit and coupons they may have acquired.
“Customer service is a huge, huge deal,” said Flagg, who took business and marketing courses at a community college to prepare her for entrepreneurship. “I learned that in my marketing class, but I learned it firsthand with RoseMary,” she said.
Flagg embodies the optimism of the 1990s, along with the labor flexibility that has been one of that era’s most persistent legacies. And she is an active participate in a growing shadow economy that many cashstrapped Americans have built-up as a supplement to the lack of formal employment opportunities. With a natural curiosity, inventiveness and hard-work, she’s been able translate her various passions and talents into a living.
A study by an economist at the University of Wisconsin estimated that the total economic activity generated by the informal, off-the-books, temporary, cash-only, often innovative work of people like Flagg may be about $2 trillion.
In order to pay the rent for the Fifth Avenue storefront space that houses her Maywood resale shop, Flagg bartends at weddings and parties and serves as a cocktail waitress at steppers’ sets. She relies on volunteers to help her run the store and tend to customers, paying them what she can when she can.
Before she owned a store, Flagg spent more than twelve years selling military hats and baseball caps to the veterans that flowed in and out of Hines VA Hospital in Maywood. She also owned a retail store at another location in Maywood for nearly four years before opening her current resale shop. She said that she transitioned into resale, because the inventory is virtually free. Families from Maywood and other communities give her their used things. It’s a pitch-perfect example of the ‘sharing’ economy at its most efficient, with Flagg monetizing a void that may have been taken for granted when the economic times weren’t as rough.
“I get Nikes, Jordans, Pumas, Adidas, nice heels. It’s all name brand stuff. People in our community don’t wear their clothes out, so when they get tired of their stuff, they dump it here. They say that they’d rather give it to me than take it to the Goodwill. They’ve got thousands of stores,” Flagg said.
That she was so deeply impressed by her experience working beside Gange at Camille et Famille isn’t an accident. Gange is a teacher as well as a doer and she spends a lot of her time instructing artists, budding entrepreneurs and other inventive anchors of the $2 billion underground economy in aboveground business fundamentals–such as record-keeping, conducting inventory and budgeting.
Gange’s grasp of those business fundamentals has enabled her to adapt to a post-recessionary trough that has doomed many other businesses. Even before the economy collapsed, she began downsizing, closing both her Oak Brook and Park Ridge stores in 2000. The move may have braced her for the crash to come. In 2007, after the poor economy and a stark increase in rent made her Oak Park location untenable, she relocated to a much smaller space on Madison Street in Forest Park, where she comfortably does business today.
Following her old boss’s lead, Gloria Flagg hopes to do business in Maywood for many years to come. VFP
Read a condensed version of this story at the Forest Park Review, click here.
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