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A Street Where Businesses Still Have Some Sense

As each day's news brings more dire warnings of doom and panic, the people in charge tell us how urgent it is that we all bail out huge, rich businesses that massively mucked up their work. Politicians, journalists and business executives alike hide behind thick tapestries of incomprehensible jargon, tossing out words such as "asset-backed securities" and "derivatives" in an effort to persuade us that they really understand what's happening.

If they did, they'd explain it in plain English. But they don't. So I visited some folks who know how business is supposed to work -- people who pay their bills on time and create jobs for their neighbors, borrowing only what they can pay back.

On Columbia Pike in Arlington County, a small strip shopping center at South Randolph Street is the picture of stability: five small, family-owned businesses and a church-run thrift shop. There are a vacuum cleaner store, a dry cleaner, a Bolivian restaurant, a hair stylist and a bakery, most owned by immigrants.

Most of the owners say business is soft of late, but nobody's defaulting on loans, no one's behind on rent, no one is laying off workers. They work within their means, something they don't see happening on Wall Street.

"We shouldn't be punished for their errors," says Reena Bawa, an immigrant from India who started out as a stylist at Beauty Fair 25 years ago and bought the shop nine years later. "Everything that's happening now is about power. They were just thinking of themselves, and as a result, the middle class, the people who are straight and smooth, are suffering."

In her business, there are no too-good-to-be-true interest rates, no great bursts of profit. "If we go up 50 cents in price, we lose customers," she says. "If I want to remodel, I might get a loan, but I know where I'm getting the money to pay it, and I don't do it if I can't."

So yes, the shop could use a facelift, and yes, the customer base is getting older, but Beauty Fair has delivered Bawa and her family their American dream. In Burke, where she lives, too many houses have "Foreclosure" signs out front, but hers is not among them -- and will not be.

Next door to the beauty salon, Derek Smith unlocks Vacuums Unlimited for another day of business and waits. Some days now, hours go by without a body coming through the door. "If I don't sell, I don't eat," says Smith, the manager. "I have to talk people into buying a vacuum for $200, when last year, I'd be talking to them about a $400 or $500 vacuum."

Smith, who grew up in the District and lives in Fort Washington, sees Wall Street executives who were sucking in $50 million a year and asks: "After a certain point, what do you need all that money for? You can't spend it all. If I was making $50 million, I'd be creating jobs for people. Instead, the banks were practically giving away loans. You give someone a loan they can't afford, you're not creating something they can leave behind for their kids, you're just putting them in debt, debt, debt, that they can't possibly pay."

Like every other shopkeeper I spoke to, Smith is staking his hopes on Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama; he's got a poster up in the store. But like the other merchants, he expects that whoever is in charge, this crisis will once again demonstrate that the rich get richer, and that the guy who does the right thing has to open his wallet.

"A new house isn't for everyone," Smith says. "Some people taking out loans don't know that, but the banker knows that, and he just looked the other way."

Across the pike, Luxury Auto Sales of Arlington sold 51 cars last month but only 17 so far this month, says salesman Miguel Santos. "Okay, the Dow Jones is down every day, people don't have health insurance, everybody's paying double for food, so much for gas," says Santos, who came to this country from the Dominican Republic 15 years ago. "And everyone is so worried -- 'Oh, my house, how will I pay for my house?' But let me tell you, I say, 'Thank you, America,' because if you work hard and pay your bills, you're going to go somewhere."

Santos says he hasn't taken a vacation in 15 years, and today his daughter is in college.

Another of the used-car salesmen, Nas Nazari, 24, doesn't pretend to understand the intricacies of the financial tomfoolery behind this collapse. He does get the basics: "You have to blame both the bank that made the loans and the borrower who couldn't afford the loan. Both of them are not thinking about tomorrow. In this country, everything is financed: your furniture, your car. That's okay, but when it blows up, the banker, he's always going to be okay. The middle class, we always pay. We have two different classes, people who buy new cars and people who buy used. And we pay."

These businesses survive because the owners know that greed will sink them, that their bottom line is only as strong as their relationships with their customers and that whatever their wares, what they really sell is trust.

Those rules don't change with the size of a business. The difference is that on Columbia Pike, merchants and their customers share a place and know each other. They're in it for themselves, sure, but also for everyone else.

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential" at

By Marc Fisher |  September 25, 2008; 9:04 AM ET
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Nicely written article, Marc. It's a pleasant break from the turmoil that our POTUS has gotten us in.

Posted by: Come on elections | September 25, 2008 10:12 AM

The main street profiles were insightful. What really gets me is the assumption by those on the Hill that we voters just don't get it. That our voice is to be discounted because we don't understand the consequences of not acting. Well, if listened to, this is what I would say: The financial crisis we're facing is the direct consequence of spending beyond our means. Debt can only be tolerated so long before it has to be righted. The bailout is just throwing more debt at the debt problem--buying time, but making the inevitable rebalancing that more painful and prolonged. I for one would rather right things now, which would be tough but the responsible thing to do.

Posted by: Erica L | September 25, 2008 1:52 PM

Yeah! It's good to occasionally hear about good hard-working people that really make up the backbone of the States.

Posted by: charlie | September 25, 2008 4:53 PM

Oh yeah, "come on elections", we can really use 4-8 years of Obama/Biden. Since they voted (TWICE) to fund the "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska, that is the kind of fiscal responsibity we REALLY need to get us out of this mess.

Three years ago McCain voted to restrict these fool bankers that are going under now, but the Dem's, including Obama/Biden, voted against that bill, and look how it turned out. As a registered Democratic this party-flag waving crap is really getting old to me.

Be careful, you might get what you are asking for. And that will be a lot more of what has happened to the economy over the last year or two.

Hurray for the Democratic Congress!!! They really fixed things nice, didn't they?

Posted by: DC Voter | September 26, 2008 9:43 AM

DC Voter - exactly what did your comment have to do with the article? Why don't you head over to the Fix and Trail?


Posted by: Fairlington blade | September 28, 2008 2:52 PM

Hey DC Voter, name one thing that Dubya has accomplished other than screw everything up that he touches. Did we spend more on the bridge to nowhere than we've spent on the ongoing war to nowhere? Get a life.

Posted by: MD Voter | September 29, 2008 12:41 PM

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