Book Review: 'We Are Staying' is a tribute to a community-based small business
"We Are Staying: Eighty Years in the Life of a Family, a Store, and a Neighborhood," by Jen Rubin, daughter of Pittsfield resident Alan Rubin, who is active locally in consulting with a small business incubator, coaching high school soccer, and as perhaps the central character in this story, was the proprietor of the Radio Clinic appliances store on the upper West Side of New York City on 98th and Broadway for 40 years. The store was opened by his father Leon Rubin, and Radio Clinic stayed open for 80 years. This book is a tribute to an iconic community-based small business, a way of life and a commentary on the importance of family and ancestry, urban community, social change and the ethical role of government in American life.
The author makes an important point that this story "originated as an immigrant story." Her grandfather and his family fled religious persecution and, like many from all over the world, migrated to New York City. The story begins dramatically for the author's father, Alan, when on the sweltering evening of July 13, 1977, New York City suffered a 25-hour blackout that pitched the city into darkness and Radio Clinic was almost completely looted. Key to Radio Clinic's survival and revival was his attitude of optimism, not anger, and in the second in a series of brilliant business moves at Radio Clinic, resolved to stay in business, even after having been almost wiped out. The very next day he put a sign on the storefront window: WE ARE STAYING.
"We Are Staying" chronicles and comments from a small business point-of-view on the effects of government policy and urban development in response to demographic shifts in the turbulent '60s, '70s, and '80s in New York. The book also laments the once-thriving 500 stores between 80th and 100th street, where everything you needed was provided for by the same merchants intent on sustaining their communities and the American dream. The book also portrays the importance of the personal involvement with people in running a small business that has been lamentably lost now with the preponderance of giant chain stores and the need to travel out of the neighborhood to shop for essentials. An important question remains — what happens to the people who remain when small businesses are gone? Appendix II to the book is "Tributes Radio Clinic received from people who lived in the neighborhood." This is a marvelous preservation. "We Are Staying" is not just a celebration of an heroic victory for keeping a store and a way of life vibrant at all odds, but it is an important living history, a detailed memory of a world that now seems largely lost, but not forgotten.
The author is a self-described "obsessive maker of mixed tapes and quite possibly the best challah baker" in Madison, Wisc. Appendix I of the book includes the store listings of what was open on the same block during the time period of Radio Clinic, the books and articles read for each chapter, and delightfully, the mix of music she made that fit the theme of each chapter. Rubin leads storytelling workshops, works for social change, and teaches social policy at the University of Wisconsin. She co-produces the Moth StorySlam in Madison.
Colin Harrington is the events manager at The Bookstore & Get Lit Wine Bar in Lenox. He welcomes reader comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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