This is a column about a three-foot piece of white cotton string and four three-inch deck screws.
Oh, and a lot more, I hope, but those things for sure.
First, the string.
Years ago, I was getting the world’s slackest chicken ready for roasting. A big chicken, but floppy. Trying to get it to lie on its back in the roasting pan was like trying to keep a drunk uncle upright on a corner of the couch. Every time I turned around, some limb or another was akimbo: a leg sagging down here, an elbow-like wing pointing outwards like it was hitch-hiking.
All I needed was a bit of string — of which I had precisely none.
I ran down the street to a family-owned grocery store, hoping they’d have the ball of white string I could picture in my head. They didn’t — but the manager saw me staring hopelessly at their small housewares/hardware section and asked what I was looking for. I told him what and why: “We don’t have any,” he said, “But…”
Trying to get it to lie on its back in the roasting pan was like trying to keep a drunk uncle upright on a corner of the couch.
And then he went back deep into the meat section, and came back with three feet of utility string. I reached for my wallet. He shook his head. “Go on.”
I was back in my kitchen teaching the chicken about restraint in a flash.
Next, deck screws.
The time when you run out of three-inch deck screws is invariably when you’re 20 feet up on a ladder on a rural property far from hardware’s big-box plenty, trying to replace half of a wooden window ledge that some past “craftsman” cut off with a saw so he could cover the space over quickly with vinyl siding. The time when you run out of deck screws is when you have screwdrivers and a rasp sticking out of one pocket, a caulking gun with a full tube of caulking balanced on the ladder and a window ledge piece that almost fits teetering on the window itself.
You need those missing deck screws, but you don’t need many.
The only options in the area are a couple of small-town convenience stores — one with a collection of emergency hardware supplies, like braiding supply lines for faucets, stray cans of paint, steel wool, caulking, boxes of screws and nails.
I drove down, still with screwdrivers in my pockets.
The owner of the store saw me near the box of deck screws and asked what I was building now. I explained my predicament.
“Just take a handful,” she said. I protested.
“No,” she said, “just take them.”
A lot of it is about agency: owners and managers in small businesses are allowed to make their own decisions. Maybe it cuts into profits a tiny bit, but you can sure call it an investment in marketing.
Maybe a couple of feet of white cotton string and a handful of three-inch deck screws aren’t really enough to inspire loyalty.
But both of those businesses got far more business from me than any big-box store did by depth-charging my email inbox with non-stop offers.
I mean, I know my nearby grocery chain is tracking all my purchases through my points card. I know that they always use my first name, all friendly-like, when they make their special offers on products their algorithm says I might like.
I understand that there are economies of scale for big stores, and that prices are often higher at small businesses trying to make their margins fit in a low-volume world.
But I know that this is the grocery store that gave me the string, and that’s the convenience store that gave me four deck screws.
And I take them my business whenever I can.
Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org — Twitter: @wangersky.