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Podcast: Jen Rubin remembers a resilient family business

The Madison-based writer and storyteller discusses her first book, “We Are Staying.”

Jen Rubin’s combined experiences in writing, storytelling, social policy, and education allowed her to delve into her family’s history in her first book, We Are Staying: Eighty Years in the Life of a Family, A Store, And A Neighborhood The memoir centers around Radio Clinic, an electronics repair and appliance store Rubin’s immigrant grandfather founded in 1934 at the corner of 98th and Broadway.

In 1977, New York City experience a historical blackout that left the city in the dark for two days. Rubin takes the reader through the crossroads her father Allen faced as he watched neighbors loot and destroy the family business In the aftermath, he wrote “WE ARE STAYING” on a piece of cardboard and displayed it in the storefront’s window. This pivotal moment in the store’s life shows the resilience (or “compulsive optimism,” as Rubin calls it) of small business owners and their connections to their communities.

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But these decisions aren’t made in a vacuum.”I like a story that is not stripped of its context,” Rubin says. The book considers the economic, social, and political forces that played on Radio Clinic and its neighborhood, taking a wide view of the changing prospects of Manhattan’s Upper West Side from the aftermath of the blackout in the 1980s and onward to the early 2000s.

In our conversation for this podcast, Rubin explained how the desire to tell he family’s story came about, the challenges of weaving storytelling into a historical memoir of a business, and a story in the book that involves her grandfather and the FBI’s piqued interest in the large contingent of Russian customers that visited Radio Clinic during the Cold War. (Rubin’s grandfather fled Russia to escape anti-Semitic persecution.)

“Everybody likes their small businesses, but yet we can’t seem to save them,” Rubin says as she sheds light on the decisions made that determined the fate of her family’s business. More than brick and mortar, the story of Radio Clinic makes the reader examine the steps that patrons, cities, and communities take to aid or abandon the small businesses on their block.

Rubin’s book invites readers to share in her family’s history, makes mixtapes to set the mood, and tells the story of a small business and the people behind the counter. Rubin connects the threads of social policy, the life cycles of a neighborhood, and how a community reacts to its changing landscape into a heartwarming and engaging story.

Rubin also co-hosts the Moth StorySlam in Madison and teaches storytelling workshops, including one on Sunday, May 5, at 2 p.m. at the Bubbler Space at the Madison Public Library’s Central Branch.

Give the conversation a listen here, or subscribe to the Tone Madison podcast on Apple Podcasts. If you like what you’re hearing, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts and consider supporting us financially with a one-time or recurring donation.

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