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A local shop is part of an ecosystem — here in England we call it the High Street. The owner of a local shop generally has no ambition to become a Tesco or WalMart. She’d rather experience steady growth, building relationships with customers who value what she brings to the community.

People often mourn the disappearance of their “local shops.” I’m sure it is the same in many parts of the world. Large chains move in, and the small local businesses, unable to compete on price, close. As the local shops disappear, customers win on price, but they are losing on personal service.

At local shops, they know their customers by name, remember the usual order of a familiar face, are happy to go the extra mile for a customer who will come through the door every week. It’s most often the business owner who is behind the counter filling bags and taking money.

This direct and personal relationship with the people that their business serves quite naturally provides the local shop with information to meet the needs of their customers. Customers come in and ask if they stock a certain product, one that they have seen advertised on TV; or that is required for a recipe on a recent episode of a cooking show. The local shop owner remembers that three people asked for that same thing this week, and adds it to their order. We’re not dealing with the careful analysis of data collected from thousands of customers here. The shop owner could name the customers that asked for that item — she will point out the new stock to them next time they come in.

One single store is unlikely to attract much footfall, so the business of one store relies on being part of a vibrant community. Within this community the local shops and tradespeople support each other. A customer pops into a store and mentions while paying that they are having trouble with their car; the shopkeeper recommends the garage down the road — “don’t forget to tell Jim that I sent you!”

As the co-owner of a bootstrapped digital product, I often feel like we are that local shop on the web. I know many of our customers by name, I know the sort of projects they use our software for. I follow many of them from my personal account on Twitter. I love the fact that they come to speak to me at conferences; that they feel they know us, Drew and Rachel from Perch. This familiarity means they tell us their ideas for the product, and share with us their frustrations in their work. We love being able to tell someone we’ve implemented their suggestions.

We’re also part of this ecosystem of small products. Unlike the village shops we are not bound together by location, but I think we are bound together by ethos. When selecting a tool or product to use in our business, I always prefer those by similar small businesses. I feel I can trust that the founders will know us by name, will care about our individual experience with their product. When I get in touch with a query I want to feel as if my issue is truly important to them, perhaps get a personal response from the founder rather than a cheery support representative quoting from a script.

This is business. We make a thing, and we sell it at a profit. The money we make enables us to continue to create something that people want, and to support our customers as they use our product. It also enables us to support other people who are running businesses in this digital high street we are part of, from the companies who provide the software we use for our help desk and our bug tracking system, right through to the freelancers who design for us.

I am happy with my small shopkeeper status. I talk and write about bootstrapping because I want to show other developers that there is a sane and achievable route to launching a product, a route that doesn’t involve chasing funding rounds or becoming beholden to a board of investors. I love the fact that decisions for my product can be made by the two of us, based on the discussions we have with our customers. If we had investors hoping for a return on their investment, it would be a very different product by now, and I don’t think a better one.

I think it is important for those of us succeeding at this to talk about it. As an industry we make a lot of noise about the startup that has just landed a huge funding round. We then bemoan the disappearance of products that we use and love, when the founder sells out to a Yahoo!, Twitter, or Google. Yet we don’t always make the connection between the two.

Small sustainable businesses rarely make headlines. So we, the local shopkeepers and tradespeople of the web, need to celebrate our own successes, build each other up, and support each other. I’d love there to be more ways to highlight the amazing products and services out there that are developed by individuals and tiny teams, to celebrate the local shops of the web. Let’s support those people who are crafting small, sustainable businesses—the people who know their customers and are not interested in chasing a lottery-winning dream of acquisition, but instead are happy to make a living making a good thing that other people love.

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Wondering - by Bruce LaBruce

As promised (or threatened), for my column this week, to follow up on last week’s discussionof the scary potential new school of serial killer, I present an interview with Toronto-based artist Nina Arsenault, who about a decade ago dated Luka Magnotta, the Canadian psycho du jour that many people seem to be fixated on–some in the most disturbingly inappropriate, fanatical way. It should be noted that at this point Magnotta has been accused of one horrifying murder and has entered a plea of not guilty. There is also some conjecture that he may have committed other murders, but it has not been substantiated. This interview is based on speculation about his psychology and motivations if he is indeed guilty of these crimes, which the evidence seems overwhelmingly to indicate.

Nina is a transgendered performance artist whose work posits herself as a kind of living sculpture, having transformed herself, through a variety of surgical procedures, from a biological male into an idealized version of her own ultimate female form. Her one-woman play, The Silicone Diaries, is a riveting, emotionally honest autobiographical monologue about her life and art that documents this transformation. A book about her work, TRANS(per)FORMING Nina Arsenault: An Unreasonable Body of Work, also features some of my photographs of her. (The above photo is from a series we did together—a visceral, expressionistic response to a bad breast job she once had which necessitated the traumatic removal of one of her silicon implants.)

What interests me with regard to Magnotta is the number of parallels between Nina’s productive, creative journey and his destructive, malignant path: the narcissism (Nina is one of the few people I know whose narcissism is entirely justified), the plastic surgery, the sex trade work, the transgendered issues, etc. But where one of them ended up becoming an empathetic, positive artist, the other became a psycho killer (allegedly). What gives?

VICE: Nina, you received over two hundred interview requests to talk about your former relationship with Luka Magnotta, but you turned them all down except for a few. How did journalists find out about it, and why did you decide to speak to the ones you spoke to?
Nina Arsenault: I was asked to comment on him because some journalists found TV footage of Magnotta when he was a contestant in a male modeling contest in Toronto–a reality TV show called Cover Guy on Out TV –and I was one of the judges. It was strange because this reality show happened well after I dated him, and he’d had so much plastic surgery since then that he had to come up and tell me who he was. He’d altered his cheeks, which is something that can radically change your appearance. The journalists at CTV and CBC both asked me to look at the footage right before interviewing me on camera to see if I remembered anything about him, so it was a bit disconcerting because it was only when I watched it that I discovered that this guy in the news had been my ex-lover! After that, I turned down interviews because I wasn’t interested in having low-level, salacious conversations about a human tragedy. I said yes to a few interviews, like Dr. Drew on CNN and the Today Show because they seemed to be reputable, and I was interested in offering a social commentary that was more analytical. I think I have something to offer in this way.

Narcissism obviously played a part in Magnotta’s demented psychology, and it’s a subject that also applies to your work and life. Can you talk a bit about your thoughts on narcissism and how it needn’t necessarily be a psychopathological impulse?
I think it’s important to differentiate between narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. To my understanding, having NDP means not being able to have empathy for others and to habitually manipulate others for your own gratification. People with this disorder lack an emotional understanding of the feelings of other people, that others have needs and an existence that continues after you leave the room.

Then I think there is a narcissism that is not necessarily pathological, but probably more and more prevalent in society, which is the tendency to understand our own lives and the lives of others based strictly on the value of our visual image. Our lives become like the movies we are watching or the video games that we are playing, having a certain emotional detachment. Cinema, video games, and social networking have taught us that we can imagine ourselves as an avatar of our being, as a (glamorous) moving image. This can be good or bad, depending on how you use it.

You and Magnotta have both altered your appearance through plastic surgery. How do you think this relates to narcissism?
Multiple cosmetic procedures allow you to sculpt a new image of yourself into your very own body. As an artist who uses video images, online media, and plastic surgery,

I wanted to explore this phenomenon.  I’ve used autobiographical material from my life, and I’ve never tried to deny my narcissism. Instead I’ve tried to investigate my tendency to understand myself as an image, wanting to be a pure image, and the impossible desire to have no thoughts or feelings, to be just an object in some sense.  I needed to get into this part of my psychological landscape, not to escape or deny it, and to search again for an authentic self.  Because I am an artist, I do this by expressing it publicly, by making work.


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