Four fishermen sat around a small table in a corner of Jack Pollard's sporting goods store last week and compared notes on a favorite topic: bass fishing.
"The young kids were pulling out their phones and showing the old timers their pictures," said Pollard, owner of the 8-month-old Pacific Sportsmen shop on Old Redwood Highway north of Santa Rosa.
For Pollard, a retired sheriff's correctional officer, the impromptu exchange showed he can attract hunters and fishermen to a "small mom-and-pop shop where they can go and feel comfortable."
Small businesses like Pacific Sportsmen keep opening their doors in Sonoma County, which is more reliant on small firms than most parts of California.
Seemingly as individual as snowflakes, the small businesses together make a significant contribution to the local economy.
"We really are a county of small businesses, almost micro businesses," said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.
The county's nearly 18,000 businesses are overwhelmingly small in scale. Nine out of 10 companies in Sonoma County employ fewer than 20 workers, according to a 2011 survey by the state Employment Development Department.
Nearly 35 percent of the county's private sector workers are employed at such businesses, compared to just 24 percent statewide.
The county also scores high for the market share of its independently owned stores. Sonoma ranked 14th of 363 U.S. metropolitan areas based on the health of its independent retail sector, according to a 2011 study by the American Booksellers Association.
The study, which measured the market share by community of major retail chains, ranked the county second for independent store activity in California behind San Jose and first among all U.S. metro areas with a population of 250,000 to 500,000.
The high ranking speaks to the character of the county, said Terry Garrett, a spokesman for the GoLocal cooperative, a collection of 300 county businesses and nonprofits that tout the benefits of supporting local businesses.
"It shows a legacy of community support for independent businesses," Garrett said. "And it shows a legacy of entrepreneurism among local business people."
Sonoma State University economics professor Robert Eyler said that entrepreneurial spirit will be key to the future of the county's economy.
"We need to expect in Sonoma County that any growth to come over time is going to be dominated by the growth of small business," Eyler said.
Small business owners today sound a common theme: opportunity. Opening a business gave many a chance to forge a new lifestyle and to make a difference in the lives of their customers.
For them, survival depends on being different from the competition, especially the major chains that can buy goods in high volume. Success requires a savvy understanding not only of how to meet customer needs but also how to build a network that is tied to a town or held together by people with common interests.
"It's not about saving a penny. It's about making sure that a community is healthy," said Octavio Diaz, owner of Agave restaurant and Casa del Mole market in Healdsburg.
Diaz, who opened his restaurant on Vine Street in 2010, gives back by sitting on the board of the town's Chamber of Commerce and the Healdsburg area committee for Community Foundation Sonoma County. He also is a member of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
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