Watching My Father’s Small Business Fade

Adding insult to injury, Congress used the CARES Act, which instituted the PPP loans, to pass $174 billion worth of tax breaks that had long been on real-estate-developer, private-equity, and corporate wish lists. “There is no real public-interest lobby on these kind of obscure corporate tax provisions,” the New York Times reporter Jesse Drucker told NPR’s Terry Gross at the time. Only a small number of tax lobbyists even understand them. This was just one more example of a system that’s come to favor the big over the small.

Throughout the pandemic, my dad has continued to pay the few people left on his payroll, including a former salesman who writes a lively biweekly newsletter (complete with a movie review!). Otherwise, his overhead was low. Still, 60 days into the pandemic, he realized that the store would run out of money by the end of the month.

He considered applying for the second PPP distribution—but he was overwhelmed by the information requested and the changing rules. (So were others. Four hours before the program would have closed on June 30, with small businesses still suffering but with $130 billion unspent, the Senate extended the application deadline by five weeks.) In mid-May, my dad, who has never been a reasonable man, reasonably said, “I’m one of the last performance-audio guys. Why am I going to bang my head against the wall like an idiot? It’s time to go bye-bye.” At the age of 68, he filed for Social Security and told me he was preparing to close for good.

I’d pleaded with him to consider retiring for the past couple of years, but now, as he told me his decision over the phone, I struggled to keep my composure. Looked at a certain way, my dad was one of the lucky ones. He’d contributed to retirement accounts and was of retirement age. Yet it felt like an ignoble end to four and a half decades of work. “I’m more than just my store,” he told me. And yet, for nearly his entire adult life, all of his decisions had argued the opposite.

Then, on Monday, June 15, San Francisco permitted indoor retail to reopen, following safety protocols. My dad was closed Mondays, but he couldn’t miss the grand opening, so he worked six days straight, no pay. (He hadn’t cut himself a check from the store since January.) His instincts were good. Wireless speakers had been selling out during the pandemic, but he had plenty in stock, and people a little older than me, my dad said, were keen to support a local store. His loyal customers—people he has known for decades, people whose kids, careers, and concerns he takes an interest in—delighted my dad by dropping in, mask on, hair long, some almost unrecognizable, telling him they wouldn’t buy anywhere else.

More than 400,000 small businesses have closed since the start of the pandemic and many thousands more are at risk, according to the Brookings Institution–affiliated Hamilton Project. Mom-and-pop stores across the country are liquidating, breaking their leases, putting up handwritten goodbyes. “We are sad and sorry that it is time to say zai jian (until we meet again),” read a sign at San Francisco’s dim sum institution Ton Kiang. “Over the years, you shared your weddings and anniversaries with us, celebrated and had us host your life passages and family gatherings … We will always treasure these moments and value your friendship.”