A veteran journalist follows an inspiring ensemble cast of small business owners fighting to keep their businesses alive through Covid-19, while exploring the sweeping trends and government policies that had brought small businesses to the breaking point long before the coronavirus hit.
There is a tendency to fetishize small business even as it shrinks before our eyes. Americans extol the virtues of small, local, often family-run shops, yet buy from big-box retailers and chains that dominate the competition. Even before the pandemic, small businesses seemed endangered. When Covid-19 hit, the resounding question was: How will they be able to survive this?
Saving Main Street is an unfiltered, up-close examination of a small group of business owners and their employees, their struggles, and their strategies to survive. It is an eye-opening tale of grit, perseverance, and entrepreneurial spirit that follows three businesses: a restaurant owner and his rambunctious staff, an immigrant running her own hair salon, and the owner of a “non-life sustaining” gift shop—alongside a larger cast of vividly drawn characters.
Gary Rivlin focuses on the first days of the Covid lockdown and the ensuing eighteen months of chaos, including the personal and financial risks, a contentious presidential election, and contradictory governmental guidelines—all which compounded the everyday challenges of running an independent business trying to attract and retain customers who expect low prices, convenience, and endless choice. Rivlin keenly observes small businesses from all angles, examining commonly held “myths”; contradictions in government policy; enormous racial and class fissures; a national self-identity intrinsically connected to the ideal of small business, and how the decline of this American way of retail impacts our notions of American exceptionalism, community, and civic duty.
As Rivlin reveals, there’s something enduring about small business in the American psyche. Life will have changed in unprecedented ways on the other side of this pandemic, yet hard times will also create opportunities, offering hope and survival.
Gary Rivlin is a Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter and the author of nine books, including Katrina: After the Flood. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek, Fortune, GQ, and Wired, among other publications. He is a two-time Gerald Loeb Award winner and former reporter for the New York Times. He lives in New York with his wife, theater director Daisy Walker, and two sons.