Amazon box or packageThanks to Masterpiece on PBS, I recently discovered and read an incredibly good novel. Written and set approximately 150 years ago, in the late 1800s, the book is about—as far as I can tell—Amazon.com.

But let me explain. I was browsing through my local brick-and-mortar book store, which fortunately still existed at that moment in time, for that was where I happened across a book with a cover featuring TV actors in period costume. As I am not a big watcher of TV or movies, such covers usually turn me off. However, this particular cover featured a famous name: Émile Zola.

Having never read anything by the great French writer Émile Zola, I impulsively snatched up the book, deciding, on the spot, that my acquaintance with this author could be delayed no longer. Truly, I couldn’t help it! Call it feminine weakness, if you will. Or, call it a helpless surrender to consumerist culture. In any case, there I was, inserting my credit card into a chip reader, in exchange for an exquisitely pretty paperback labelled The Paradise—but which I soon discovered was originally titled The Ladies’ Paradise.

In the novel, The Ladies’ Paradise is the name of a large store in Paris that is crushing the small businesses nearby. Women are nearly powerless before it: they roam its galleries in awe of the delicate merchandise, and they flock from within and outside of the city to purchase the fabrics and ready-made clothes on offer. Meanwhile, the mom-and-pop competition try to hold their own by adhering to old-fashioned values such as artistry, intimate knowledge of a particular trade and its goods, family-oriented service, and high prices that indicate value. Zola describes one small-business-owning family in this way:

“The Baudus were not a bad sort of people. But they complained of never having had any luck.”

That is—unluckily for them, most customers preferred cheaper prices, more spectacle and grandeur, and a wide and ever-increasing selection of merchandise.

“Had anyone ever seen such a thing?” Monsieur Baudu rants at one point. “A draper’s shop selling everything! Why not call it a bazaar at once? And the employees! . . . treating goods and customers like so many parcels . . . No affection, no manners, no taste!”

Sound familiar? Twenty-five years ago, had anyone ever heard of a bookstore selling everything?! Treating customers like so many shipping boxes?! No taste!!

Thus the wisdom of Zola was revealed to me; a 150-year-old story that resonates so well today must be describing some sort of universal theme. And best of all: the author does not take sides. He does not present big business owners as any better or worse than small business owners. He presents them all as humans making choices—and the moral is that those who obstinately refuse to adapt to changing times, and those who fail to actively, persistently work toward positive innovation, will suffer for their inflexibility, no matter who they are.

How do you handle the choice between shopping big and global, versus small and local? How do your favorite small businesses stay in the black—have they made innovations, or developed specialties, that enable them to compete successfully in a difficult marketplace? Have your favorite big businesses made innovations, or developed specialties, as well?

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