Small business does not only form the engine of the Australian economy, it is an important part of the rich cultural framework that shapes our diverse communities
Like many people who grew up in the 1980s, small businesses such as the local milk bar and green grocer were a big part of my childhood. But while the importance of small business from a cultural and economic perspective is unquestionable, their long-term viability is. For that reason in November, Australians are urged to visit their local shops as part of Shop Small – an American Express initiative aimed at supporting small businesses.
Shop Small has partnered with respected photographer and cultural archivist, Eamon Donnelly, to capture some examples of what makes small businesses in Australia so unique. Over the last few years, Mr Donnelly has been on a personal mission to preserve the image of the suburban milk bar, capturing striking and poignant images of some of the country’s most unique and iconic small businesses.
It all started about 10 years ago when Mr Donnelly returned to his home town of Geelong and retraced the steps from his home to his old corner store called “Dave’s”. When he arrived he discovered Dave’s had long closed and a rusted tin sign for The Sun newspaper was all that remained of the old milk bar. In a nostalgic moment he took a photo of the building, which sparked his interest in preserving memories of small businesses in photographs.
Since then Mr Donnelly has taken thousands of images as part of his The Milk Bars Project. He has also received hundreds of photos from people sharing their own memories of small businesses. It became a conversation starter and, as Mr Donnelly discovered, a topic that people everywhere love to talk about. Over the past two months, he has taken his mission further, working with Shop Small to capture photos of a range of small businesses across the country.
Mr Donnelly has covered a lot of ground during his time travelling around the country. He visited Lindbeck’s Butcher, a Queanbeyean based butchery that practices traditional methods and prides itself on standing the test of time. He stopped by Paragon Café, a diner in Goulburn that focuses on two things: great, old fashioned customer service and quality food and milkshakes. He also visited the iconic North West business, Beechworth Bakery, where he ate a meat pie and cake and took a photo or two.
During his travels, Mr Donnelly ventured to South Australia where he met and photographed the owners of Opalio’s, a 43-year-old family run bespoke opal jeweler in Cooper Pedy that mines and cuts all of its own opals. His final stop was some hot chips and an ice cold beer at The Daly Waters Pub, an outback Northern Territory establishment built in 1930 that is about as authentic Australian as you can get.
While national data and business owner feedback imply that the small business sector is growing, the majority of Australians believe more small businesses are closing than starting. Compared to 10 years ago, 83 per cent of consumers believe small businesses are not lasting as long, while 71 per cent said there appear to be fewer small businesses. Just under a third (30 per cent) said the number of businesses in their area had declined. That figure rose to 44 per cent in country and rural areas.
The negative societal and cultural impact of small business closures was also evident in the findings of The Economy of Shopping Small: Custom Counts report, an annual study commissioned by American Express. More than half of surveyed consumers who believed more small businesses were closing were concerned about a loss of local employment opportunities; 37 per cent were worried about preserving a sense of community; and 29 per cent feared for the loss of neighbourhood character.
The small business sector doesn’t just service Australia’s communities; it protects the spirit of community. The positive legacy of small business goes far beyond the dollar contribution.
November is Shop Small month, a period where consumers and businesses are urged to consciously support small businesses in their area. American Express card holders and business partners can register with www.shopsmallaustralia.com for a range of offers that can be used at numerous small businesses throughout the country. An online map can also be used to plan a trip to visit some of the country’s most exciting small businesses. It is a small gesture that can go a long way to preserving these businesses that form such an important part of Australian society.