Mike Black stands casually behind the counter of his downtown market, wearing a zip-up North Face, light-colored jeans and faded New Balance shoes. He greets customers as they enter the store, knowing most by name, often knowing what particular lottery ticket or pack of cigarettes they buy before they tell him.
"Downtown is like a big family," he says with a smile. "I know everybody."
Since opening Black's Mercantile on 221 N. Walnut St. a little over three-and-a-half years ago, Black, 55, has provided downtown with a comfortable environment to shop for groceries.
Katie Hayden, a cashier at Black's and an IU sophomore, says she applied for a job after frequenting the store and noticing the friendly atmosphere.
"If Black's Mercantile didn't have the students here, we wouldn't be here."- Jim Ginter, Black's Mercantile manager
"It's such a personable environment," says Hayden, 21, as she neatly organizes the boxes of cigars behind the counter. "No one is ever breathing down my neck or making me feel stressed, and pretty much everyone who comes in here is a regular, which makes the day go by a lot easier."
"And Mike is definitely an awesome boss," Hayden adds, as if it were common knowledge. "He literally knows almost everyone who walks through the door."
Black has been a part of downtown Bloomington for more than 25 years. Originally from Owensboro, Ky., the IU grad has owned and managed The Video Saloon, which is located in the same building of what is now Black's Mercantile, since 1982. Starting out as a quiet place to get a few beers and watch movies, The Vid now has three full bars and a stage for live music, a common venue for local artists.
According to Black, the key to a successful business is being involved with the daily operations as much as possible.
"These two businesses pretty much wear me out," he says, leaning back in his chair at a table in The Vid. "If I'm awake at night, I'm working."
As critical as Black is to keeping his businesses running, he is not the only dedicated employee. Kristina Armour, an associate of Black's for over 12 years, helps manage investments and keep the company's finances in order.
"Kristina helps run the whole thing," Black says without hesitation. "She can do it all."
Another key component to smooth business operations for Black is long-time friend Jim Ginter, who has helped manage Black's Mercantile since its conception. Originally from Buffalo, Ginter says he met Black not long after moving to Bloomington in 1987. He says working for Black is a different experience than any other job he's had.
"Downtown is like a big family."- Mike Black
"He's just so easy-going and civil about things," Ginter says as he waves goodbye to a deliveryman. "By being so understanding he avoids a lot of problems."
Ginter says that one of the reasons Black's Market has been successful is the patronage of IU students.
"If Black's Mercantile didn't have the students here, we wouldn't be here, and we know it," Ginter says. "We don't just provide for the students, but we're actually a part of this college town."
Black agrees that the student body of IU is a large part of the market's success.
"It's simple business," he says with an unforced smile. "If you don't get it for them, they'll get it somewhere else. Everything on the shelves are things that have been requested, things that kids need."
Benjamin Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.