Long hours, few breaks for solo business operators

Running solo means no paid vacations, no company-assisted health benefits. "

Kathy Fitzmaurice employs both Ophelia and Roger as companions in her Schenectady gift store, the Katbird Shop.

They watch shoppers, so they could be considered security. They also examine merchandise on shelves and tables, so they might be inventory control specialists.

“I haven’t trained them to run the register yet,” smiles Fitzmaurice, whose two cats wander the nine-room business at 425 Liberty St.

That means Fitzmaurice does all the work. As owner and sole employee, she buys stock, rings up sales and greets the steady stream of customers who visit every day. She’s not alone — bunches of other men and women in the Capital Region run their own businesses, set their own schedules and are both boss and worker.

Two others are longtime Schenectady barber Ray Zanta and Guilderland plumber Howard Brent.

In Fitzmaurice’s case, there are always people around, walking the city parking lot across the way from the Katbird — the shop’s name is also her longtime nickname — between Liberty and Franklin streets. Others are shopping at the nearby Post Office, and shops on nearby Jay Street.

“It was something I’d wanted to do for a long time,” said Fitzmaurice, who opened her store in December 2005. A graduate of Schalmont High School, she spent several years as a recruiter for a staffing company in Atlanta, Ga. “I do it all — the day transactions, waiting on the customers, ordering inventory, doing the maintenance and the cleaning.”

Running the show can be difficult.

“It’s a love-hate relationship,” Fitzmaurice said. “It is a lot of work, and you are tied to the store because you have to be here. Then you have days when you see people outside having fun and you’re stuck inside.”

The hours are long. The Katbird Shop is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. Sometimes, she stays until 9 p.m. on Fridays.

People can stay late in the store, too. Nine rooms hold plenty of product. The main floor features artwork and crafts, American-made products that include greeting cards, pottery, soaps, glassware, photography and paintings. Baby sweaters and children’s toys, jewelry and handbags are also in the lineup.

Other rooms, including several in the basement, are miniature antique stores. Dishes, home decor, jewelry, Boy Scout memorabilia and vintage baseball jerseys are all on display and on sale.

One benefit of being a one-person operation is that Fitzmaurice can run the place her way. The work by local artists and crafts people on her shelves includes glass art and jewelry in Scotia resident Cheryl Gutmaker’s “The Lady’s Got Glass” line and prints of Slingerlands watercolor artist Henry C. Meier’s work.

She also stocks wooden candle holders crafted by Ron Loeber of Knox and balsam-scented door draft blockers made by Mary Loeber, Ron’s wife. Angora shawls come from Twintail Rabbitry in Schoharie. Judie Gumm’s natural design jewelry — small, red-eyed sandhill cranes are pins, purple bunches of grapes are earrings — are also for sale.

Fitzmaurice purchases some goods wholesale and sells other on consignment — that means the manufacturer gets paid when their items sell. “It’s a lot more work,” Fitzmaurice said, noting she has to write more checks, “but the cash flow situation is better this way.”

Talking is part of the job, and Fitzmaurice likes conversation with customers. But as the only clerk in the store, she said she doesn’t always have time for people who want to talk for an hour. “Most people don’t realize you have work to do,” she said. “They assume you have nothing to do, are lonely, want company.”

Staying on his own

Most mornings, Ray Zanta is inside his Mont Pleasant barber shop by 7:30 a.m.

He opens at 8 a.m., Tuesday through Saturday. During the week, he’s open until 4 p.m. On Saturday, he switches off his electric barber pole with the faded, swirling red and blue stripes at 1 p.m.

Zanta, an 84-year-old former county legislator, has been on his own for most of a 67-year career cutting hair and trimming beards. He’s been in the two-story building at Crane Street and Chrisler Avenue — across from a Cumberland Farms convenience store and next to the Trustco bank branch at Main Avenue — since 1954. He worked with other barbers during his earlier years, but has always preferred the solo act.

“At my age, I don’t think I could work for anybody,” Zanta said. “I have my own style, and every shop has its own style.”

He keeps coming to work to keep himself occupied. As owner of the building, he rents space to the Vic-Torian Rose beauty shop, two upstairs tenants and to three people who rent garages in back of the green-sided building. Showing up every day lets him keep eyes on the property.

On a cold, cloudy morning late last year, Zanta had nine customers before 10:30 a.m. That was brisk business, the way he said business used to be in once-busy Mont Pleasant neighborhood.

“This used to be like Times Square,” said. “Movie theater, Odd Fellows Hall, Polish National Alliance hall, post office, Whalen’s drugs, Ted’s deli, Cook’s hardware. All gone.”

Zanta doesn’t think society can accommodate the single businessman any more; he believes it’s much harder for a skilled man or woman with a trade to go it alone. “You’ve got your electric bills, your upkeep, high rents,” he said, adding that he generally makes $400 a week after expenses.

Fewer hassles

Howard Brent of Guilderland has followed his father and grandfather into the plumbing business. “It’s a family disease,” he jokes.

He doesn’t joke about working jobs alone.

“It’s very simple,” he said. “You can call your own shots, you can go where you want when you want. If you’re self-employed, you can set your own schedule. When you work for someone, it doesn’t quite work that way. And there’s another thing, the income.”

Working for a company means a weekly paycheck. Brent said the money earned in 40 hours’ servitude is a “hell of a lot” less than what he makes running his own company.

Brent knows the disadvantages, too. Running solo means no paid vacations, no company-assisted health benefits. “You have two or three hours of paperwork after jobs, you have people who don’t pay, but that doesn’t happen too often. Business will get slow, and you still have the bills to pay. When you’re sick, you don’t work.”

Brent also gets calls at all hours of the night, because in addition to being boss and worker, he is also the dispatcher.

“It happens when you’ve promised to take your wife to dinner, and you have to say ‘no’ to the people because I don’t say no to my wife,” he said. “When you make a date you keep it.”

If the customer was established with Brent, and desperate for plumbing assistance, he said he’d make the house call with his tools. And with his wife.

Brent has been in the Capital Region since 1978. He used to work his trade in the New York City area, and had plumbers working with him. But it was hard to find good help.

“I had one character who came highly recommended,” Brent said. “Glowing references. Turned out he was a drug addict and he was using my trucks at night to rob apartments.”

The guy had to leave Brent’s employ for a prison job. And that left the boss looking for fewer employees and fewer hassles.

Brent, who also works at the Home Depot store in North Greenbush, believes people would rather deal with a one-man crew rather than a company. “I have a lot of customers who wouldn’t think of calling anyone else,” he said. “I’m neat and I’m clean, I’m easier to get than most companies and I won’t charge time-and-a-half.

“Let’s put it this way,” he added. “You can’t tell I was there except for the bill.”

Categories: Business

Leave a Reply