Mark Shaffer of Shaffer’s Full Steam Ahead Hobby shop works on an RC car on a work bench in the shop.

Mirror photo by Matt Churella

Small businesses are the engine of the local economy and account for 86% of the Blair County Chamber of Commerce’s membership, said Chamber President/CEO Joe Hurd.

According to Hurd, the chamber considers small businesses as those with 50 or fewer employees. Part of the chamber’s goal is to help these businesses grow and flourish, but after the COVID-19 pandemic, the goal has changed to simply help small businesses survive, he said.

“Consequently, a lot of them unfortunately have not,” Hurd said, adding the economy’s future is dependent upon how strong and vibrant small businesses are.

Several small business owners report facing challenges of being short staffed and competing with online retailers and big-box stores, like Walmart. But many family-owned stores, like Hines Feed Store in Hollidaysburg, said they can offer services and personal care to the local community that other retailers cannot.

Owner Janet Hines said she doesn’t have the buying power that big-box stores have by purchasing large amounts of inventory to sell at a lower price.

Matt Hines, manager of Hines Feed Store in Hollidaysburg, weighs out an order.

MIrror photo by Matt Churella

As a result of inflation, she said the business has struggled to sell as much lawn and garden supplies as it did prior to the pandemic.

Hines said she’s seen the business face other adversities, including at one point having to change their entire customer base from farmers to lawn and gardening customers.

“At one point it was more farming oriented, but now a lot of those farms are housing developments,” she said, adding she’s worked there with her family for 50 years. “It has its challenges but most of the time it’s very good.”

Matt Hines, her grandson, manages the store. He said working with his family is great because they’re the most dependable people to rely on. They also employ seasonal high school students in the summer, he said, adding a lot of those hires are children of longtime customers.

“We know the customers really well,” Hines said. “I’m only 25, and I’ve seen these customers every year for my whole life.”

Treated like family

Mark Shaffer said, in 1977, his father, Gene, was able to turn his hobby of playing with radio-controlled cars into a successful business — Shaffer’s Full Steam Ahead Hobby Shop — because of loyal customers in the area.

“A lot of these people, they come in as customers but after the time they’ve been in here, they’re good friends, if not more,” he said.

Nowadays, Shaffer and his wife, Julie, run the hobby shop with two employees. Like many other small business owners in the country, Shaffer said there’s a lot of work to be done behind the scenes, like taking care of inventory and repairing parts for customers.

“There’s just not enough hours in the day and not enough of me to spread that thin,” he said, adding he’s in the process of collaborating with Lakemont Park to race RC cars on tracks and RC boats on the lake.

Shaffer said many small business owners have pride in what they do and treat their customers like family because their name is attached to their work.

Julie Shaffer said she and her husband enjoy spending time together at work and at home.

“It’s a give and take just like anything,” she said. “We do it because we enjoy it.”

Sylvia Colyer — who co-owns Greenwood Pools and Spas along Pleasant Valley Boulevard with her husband, Randy — said she knows a lot of their longtime customers by name, and they’re treated like members of their family.

“Every time they step through the doors, we know that they have other choices, but we are so grateful that they chose to come here instead of buying online,” she said.

Colyer said online retailers can’t provide the same level of services and repairs that Greenwood Pools and Spas can.

Still, people can watch videos on YouTube and learn how to install pools and repair their own parts by watching others do it, Colyer said.

Paige Aquadro, owner of Terra Boutique in Hollidaysburg, said she’s noticed people are willing to pay a little more to support her local business, which focuses on bringing in high-quality, unique pieces of clothing that can’t be found elsewhere.

“Our stuff may be a little more expensive, but it’s better quality,” she said.

Aquadro, who runs all aspects of the business by herself, said there are many pros and cons of having a small business.

“You don’t really get sick days. You have to come to work no matter what,” she said, adding she’s currently pregnant and sometimes has to adjust the store’s hours, which her customers have been supportive of.

“I have the best customers ever. They are so sweet,” she said. “So many of them stop in to check up on me.”

Giving back

Even though last week was National Small Business Week, Colyer said it’s important to shop local year-round because many small businesses donate their products and money to community fundraisers.

“We like to take care of our community,” she said. “Amazon is not donating to the Little League team or the gymnastics team or the cheerleader unit. They’re not donating to the fire halls.”

Jimmie Peters — who owns The Dream family restaurant, Beech Tree Cafe and three Best Way Pizza franchises — said one thing he has learned from working at Best Way Pizza since 1997 is “if you’re good to your people, they’ll be good to you.”

He said that logic applies not only to his customers and the people he hires, but to people he meets in the community as well.

Peters said he tries to make community donations and sponsor as many teams as he can. It’s a hard decision when he turns down sponsorships, he said, adding it’s not feasible to accept multiple requests at the same time.

“You gotta filter through them,” he said. “It’s tough. You do as much as you can, but you can only do so much.”

Peters said the hardest parts of owning five businesses are the long hours and staying ahead of equipment breaking and other expenses, which are constantly rising, he said.

“It’s nothing to put in 60 hours a week, 70 or even 80, honestly,” Peters said. “If you’re in for the ups, you’ve got to be in for the downs.”

At the end of the day, seeing the hard work pay off is what makes it worth it, Peters said.

When he’s working at Beech Tree Cafe, he often gives kids coupons for free doughnuts, which are made fresh daily, he said.

“You should see their eyes when they light up,” Peters said. “I enjoy it.”

On Thursday, Carl Saylor of Hollidaysburg visited the cafe several times.

“This is my second time today,” he said. “They call me the mayor of the doughnut shop.”

Saylor said what keeps him coming back are the “very friendly” workers and the desire to support a small business in his hometown.

Mirror Staff Writer Matt Churella is at 814-946-7520.

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