It’s frustrating when people insinuate businesses in Waynesburg are doomed, said Ben McMillan, or when they say that all the shops on High Street are closing down.
His shop, McMillan Photography, decorated with vintage cameras and prints of his work, has been open more than a decade. And it has thrived.
That hasn’t stopped all the media attention and gossip, including multiple news articles in local papers.
“The businesses that are closing are always a bigger story than the businesses that have been here 30 or 40 years,” said McMillan.
In less than a year, more than five businesses in Waynesburg closed down for various reasons—financial struggles, new job opportunities and a freak accident, to name a few. But these were all extraneous circumstances, McMillan said. There are plenty of businesses that have remained afloat despite the struggles that come with operating in a small town—businesses like the Fashion Shoppe, 5 Kidz Kandy, Mickey’s Men’s Store and several others.
“I think people have kind of a misconception with that because they see businesses come and go, but the businesses that are failing have only been here for like a year or two,” he said. “They’re not really seeing the businesses that have been here forever.”
That’s not to say running a business in a town like Waynesburg is easy. Like many small towns in the U.S., Waynesburg’s economy is wavering. Supported by an unstable coal industry which has laid off hundreds of workers in the last year, many business owners have surmised there has been an effect on sales. Many of the founding members of the Waynesburg Merchant’s Guild are no longer in business—including Artbeat and Ruff Creek Crafts—and some fear that the community will become disengaged.
But each of the closures during the last year have specific circumstances: Hot Rod’s BBQ experienced a devastating fire; Lauren Stauffer of Ruff Creek Crafts retired and Eric Moore of Four Horsemen Comics and Gaming moved for a new job opportunity. These instances can’t be used as proof that the economy is going downhill, McMillan said.
“Business in a small town is absolutely tough,” he said. “It’s brutal. It’s hard. If we had to rely on just local business we’d struggle, but you adapt and you find ways to get past it, to make profit.”
Adaptation was key to the success of Mickey’s Men’s Store, which is entering its 52nd year. The business began with Mickey Bruno, who bought the store in 1967 and sold mostly dress clothing.
But today, said Bruno’s daughter, Vickie, the store is dedicated to selling casual and work clothes. Suits and sport coats have been replaced by Levi’s jeans and Carhartt flame-resistant garments.
“You have to change,” Vickie said. “You have to give the people what they want.”
When she looks down the street, Vickie said High Street has certainly changed; she has seen businesses come and go. Years ago, she said there were two or three shoe stores, multiple women’s clothing shops and other specialty shops. She remembers going shopping with her mother as a small child.
It’s different now. The stores don’t help each other out as much as they once did, she said; the women’s clothing store next door closed and there aren’t as many businesses left.
“People don’t want to stick it out,” she said.
But at the same time, her store is doing well. Nine out of 10 customers that visit are from out of town, and they’re consistently impressed with her prices and inventory. Even when Walmart was opened nearby, Vickie said it had no effect on her business.
“It’s less of a struggle today than it was back in the day, when my dad was running the business,” she said. “We’re just very fortunate right now, that we have what the workers around here want.”
McMillan chose to locate his business in Waynesburg specifically because of its location. He appreciates the rural setting, the proximity to I-79 and the easy commute to core markets in Pittsburgh, Wheeling, Uniontown and Morgantown.
“I think we get the best of both worlds,” McMillan said.
The business didn’t start out that way, even with those amenities.
McMillan began as a wedding DJ, a job he dedicated 14 years to. He got interested in photography through some friends, and began transitioning careers. When he first started out, he was mainly shooting friends and family in a small studio out of his home.
“I really liked what they were doing, and I just thought, ‘OK, I’ve already been DJ-ing for so long–let’s try something different,” he said.
McMillan said it took about five years for him to fully change careers and he became hooked on wedding photography. When his shop was fully established, he still felt the need to adapt and try new things to be successful in the market. People weren’t interested in portraits, he said, so he focused more on weddings. He expanded his reach–not just relying on local business. Now, McMillan said he covers “pretty much the whole state of West Virginia.”
With the businesses that have failed, McMillan said it’s likely they just haven’t done their homework. Newer business owners tend not to do all the research, he said, or they aren’t as consistent.
It’s tainted the narrative, he said.
“I think people are so focused on failure, they’re not looking at the stores that have been here for so long,” McMillan said.
While it’s important to do research, McMillan at a certain point, business owners need to take a chance. For a while, he even tried to run an RC Racetrack in addition to his photography business; it was profitable for a few months and then fell apart. He said he would have regretted it if he didn’t at least try.
“You can’t be afraid to fail and I think people are so just focused on those failures that from the outside looking back in, it’s a shame to look at it that way,” he said. “How would you know if you didn’t try?
His photography business was a chance, too; one he’s grateful for.
“I got to do two different things that I love,” he said. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”