Russell Shorto, in his book, Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City, seeks to understand the origins of the Dutch sense of liberalism, and in so doing, describes the creation of Amsterdam. The first Amsterdammers thought it best, way back in the 1200s, to establish space in a swampy area that lay below under sea level. They quickly realized that no individual would be able to succeed on his or her own. In order to push and hold back the waters, they would have to work with one another so that they all could succeed, helping to guarantee the success of each individual. That is what a true and healthy community is all about.
I own and operate a small coffee shop in downtown Hamilton, and over the almost two years Café Orange has been running I’ve had the honour of helping create community for many Hamiltonians. It is perhaps what I love best about owning a small business in Hamilton.
One of my favourite stories is of a group of people who come to Oranje almost every Tuesday morning. When the cafe first opened, no one knew each other, yet Oranje quickly became the place where these four people come each week. Though each of the group come from different situations, conversations sparked, stories were shared and each became comfortable joking with the others.
Now, this group recounts and shares and laughs about past experiences. When one person is missing the void is noticed, and each week I watch as this community continues to develop.
As a coffee shop owner, I also have the privilege of interacting with other small-business owners, especially those within the coffee community. Throughout the planning stages for Café Oranje, I learned that the specialty (third-wave) coffee industry is typically cooperative and complementary rather than competitive. This year, for example, I closed on Good Friday to reseal the cafe floors, and so I tweeted that our customers could find great cof- fee at three other local coffee shops. This shocked one of my regulars, but I explained to him that we operate in a community. We recognize that we each offer different coffees and beverages, but we each focus on a high-quality customer experience and developing a stronger coffee community in Hamilton.
The idea of community is also strongly expressed and lived when small-business owners practise shopping locally. I’ve helped design and build two cafes in the city and during construction of both there were times when I said to myself that it would be so easy to head to Walmart to pick up what I needed. I knew I’d find it there and at a good price. But each time I experienced the joys of local scavenger hunts, learned how to ask for help from others and found what I needed from local shops. Knowing that my hard-earned dollars are going back into the communi- ties in which I live, work, and play makes for a satisfying experience each time I shop.
My new favourite line is, “A rising tide lifts all boats,” and while the rising tide probably evoked fear in those early Amsterdammers, they understood that when the group suc- ceeds, each individual succeeds as well. It’s a lesson I continue to learn and understand and one I believe is imperative for those of us in small business ownership — and for all of us in #HamOnt. Together, each one of us is stronger.