Nearly half a lifetime ago, when I was 39 and had been publishing for 20 years as the full-time writer I could afford to be thanks to my father’s success in business, I came out of my retreat in the Soquel hills and started a business downtown. It was a weekly newspaper called The Sun that lasted three years, lost a lot of money and was put out of its misery by the 1989 earthquake, which wiped out our modest advertising base, among other commercial and structural devastations suffered throughout the county. After cleaning up my various messes, I left town for a few years and resumed more literary pursuits.
Thanks to my capital investment I was publisher of The Sun, but my main job was on the editorial side. The business was initially run by Bradley Zeve, who has since gone on to big success as publisher of the Monterey County Weekly. Bradley sold ads, ran the sales staff and kept track of our cash as it drained away, while I filled what in the trade is called the “news hole,” or what fits in the space that’s left on the page after the ads are in place. When Bradley left to start his own paper, I took on more of the publisher’s role as the public face of the company; that is, a businessperson. For example, I joined the Downtown Association, where I don’t think I fooled anyone, since they had gotten to know me through the years as a mere writer.
I learned in my three years running The Sun how hard it is for just about any business to generate enough revenue to pay the rent and pay your employees, taxes, insurance, etc., not to mention the complex psychology of marketing and the reasons merchants decide where to invest, or not invest, in advertising.
Although I was in it for the newspapering more than as a for-profit venture and was busy wrangling writers and editing stories and putting out fires and dealing with in-house drama and with angry readers who disapproved of our independence, somehow I also absorbed a lot about what it means to build a business. I haven’t tried anything like that since — not as a publisher anyway; it’s just too hard.
But I learned what it takes to run a shop and, equally important, to turn a profit, and when I see what the pandemic has done to the economy and to individual businesses, I marvel at the nerve and determination it takes for people to keep their ventures running, to pay their workers, pay their rent, sanitize everything in sight, put up signs and Plexiglas barriers, heaters for their tables outdoors that burn up fossil fuels and spew greenhouse gases — all of which costs a fortune at a time of little to no income coming in. Under what used to be normal circumstances you’d need to sell a lot of meals or tchotchkes or socks or cookies to afford rent on Pacific Avenue. Now it seems almost impossible.
But entrepreneurs, if they haven’t been forced to fold, somehow soldier on and figure out ways to keep their doors open and their customers safe and served, and they deserve our admiration and gratitude and patronage to keep them going until the economy starts to turn around. Nobody knows when that will happen, but someone familiar with the local business landscape told me they’re optimistic that once everyone is vaccinated (but what about the anti-vaxxers?) our economy will bounce back as UCSC students and tourists once again flood our streets.
I hope this vision of renewal holds true, and that what’s left of our town’s small businesses can hold on long enough to catch the returning waves of customers and thrive as the economy comes back to life. Bradley used to tell me about the creativity of successful businesses. Now I understand how the imagination is as vital a part of management as anything more obviously entrepreneurial.
Stephen Kessler’s column appears on Saturdays.