The cramped emporium — stocked toes-to-eyes with the necessities of rural American daily life like steel-toed work shoes, cowboy boots, hoodies, trucker hats, and jeans – has been a mainstay on Jefferson Avenue since 1930. The shop has survived a great depression, a world war, and the decimation of Ohio River factories in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s seen other stores come and go. But few developments have rocked Ruttenberg’s and its five full-time employees as much as the opening of a Walmart supercenter less than a mile away, on the road into town, in 2006.
In other words: How can small businesses, where profits are distributed among a handful of people who pay themselves fairly and spend their earnings in their community, keep going when they have to attract customers with something other than the lowest prices?
The question is essential to resolve if smaller communities are to endure and prosper, the dilemma we pose in our PBS film Moundsville, and not merely be profit centers for consumer goods sellers like Walmart, Amazon and others to simply exploit for more profits.
Ruttenberg’s endurance formula, as I discovered when I visited, is selling more online on its website, stocking its shelves with high-margin, high-quality goods, and forging close personal relationships with its customers.
And it’s also something I noted after posting the article on some Facebook boards.
The story received over almost a thousand likes and hundreds of comments, all praising Ruttenberg’s, and especially owner Ilene Zinn for her good cheer, neighborliness and high quality of goods and service.
“She is such a sweet lady!”
“Well from personal experience this lady remembered my husband’s likes dislikes and sizes for years.”
“Such a nice person!”
“When I worked the oil fields I bought a pair of steel toed boots there not knowing the history. People were friendly and helpful. Now glad I did. Like to buy local merchants rather than box stores.”
“I love Ilene and her family! Love the store!”
“Got a pair of bibs there in the early 70s. Don’t still have them, but great store.”
“I love that they are carrying on this great American tradition. I doubt that your computers know you personally.”
“Sweetest person ever!”
“I bought my first pair of jeans there at 13 (1963). Kept buying jeans, Carhatts, flannels, hunting boots.. So many things in a lifetime.”
“Ilene is the best.”
After the story appeared, Tyler Thomason, a spokesman for Walmart, called me to say that the company considered the story was unfair. There are many other factors that have pressured small businesses, he said. And Walmart also cares about the communities where it sells shoes, and tens of thousands of other products.
And, as I noted in the story:
To be sure, Walmart, like Amazon, is often very popular for residents in rural America. And it can bring a range of goods and services that weren’t previously available. In many cases, including in Moundsville, the stores become community centers.
We work side-by-side with community partners to find solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges and build long-term, innovative programs that have a lasting, positive impact.
But, as the cascade of warm messages posted about Ilene and her store remind us, there is more to life than getting the cheapest price so you can afford to build long-term innovative programs.
In a small community, love is worth more than that.
John W. Miller