Yellow Springs downtown business mostly steady
- Published: February 20, 2014
When it comes to surviving as a business in downtown Yellow Springs, not all outfits are the same. The various successes and challenges of each seem to relate more to the practices of the shop owners and the pressures within each merchandising industry, rather than the common location at the hub of the village. So it should come as no surprise that recession or post-recession, some downtown businesses are struggling, many are holding steady and a few are thriving and finding ways to grow.
A recent informal survey of about 10 shop owners reveals some of the details that contributed to the current state of business downtown. One success story is Design Sleep, whose owner, Michael Kovaleski, has regularly been drawing people from as far away as Lancaster, Pa., to buy the beds he sells in the village. The business recently expanded upstairs in the Dayton Street building where it opened exactly 10 years ago this spring. Other businesses, such as Ha Ha Pizza and the Gulch, were unaffected by the outside economy, while some stores such as Asian Collection, Artistic Silver and Eco•Mental have closed up shop in the past year.
“Some are saying it’s getting more and more difficult — but people are holding on,” said Yellow Springs Chamber of Commerce Director Karen Wintrow. “I’m feeling as positive as I ever have this time of year.”
New businesses are already waiting to fill the recently vacated spaces, Wintrow said. And the reasons behind one business’s success and another’s struggle may relate as much to the overall economy as to each shopowners’ style and practices. According to Chamber manager Holly Simpson, using the slower times to rotate merchandise or redecorate a retail space can be an effective way to prepare for increased traffic and sales when the weather breaks.
No matter where they are in their business plans, all 77 downtown stores will benefit from the increased traffic spring is likely to bring.
Business is booming
Michael Kovaleski talks a lot at a fairly rapid clip. His enthusiasm for mattresses made with environmentally friendly materials by skilled workers is infectious. And since he opened his Design Sleep business at 108 Dayton Street, sales have increased, at a pace of 15 to 20 percent each year for the past four years. Starting with 1,000 square feet in 2004, Design Sleep grew to 2,000 and then 3,000 square feet this year, expanding into the northern wing and upper level of the old brick building owned by Bob Baldwin. In 2012 Kovaleski also increased his staff, hiring a full-time delivery person and full-time sales assistant, Stacey Arnett, who essentially “saved the business” last year after Kovaleski cracked his skull in a bike accident and spent the next several months recuperating.
The recession did slow growth a bit, so starting in 2009 Kovaleski became a wholesaler to eight bedding stores in California, New York and Texas. He also switched to a German mattress-maker whose product and business values he believes in. But one outside force that contributed to the increase in Design Sleep’s sales of organic cotton mattresses was a 2007 federal regulation mandating open flame testing on commerical mattresses. The law essentially pushed consumers (and the industry) toward the safety of organic mattresses, which Kovaleski was already selling, unlike any other store in the tri-state Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky area. With no competitors, 80 percent of Design Sleep’s business comes from an hour away, and about 20 percent of it comes from those who are three hours away.
“We have as many customers coming from Ann Arbor as from Yellow Springs,” he said last week.
So despite a traumatic start to 2013, with a little luck and some personal ingenuity, Kovaleski is entering the 10th year of business on a growth curve with his business and personal life, with the recent birth of his sixth child. And despite the temptation to move his business closer to the bulk of his customer base, Kovaleski, who lives with his family in Springfield, says he is comfortable with the current path.
“I’m seeing steady growth now. If we stay flat now, I’m happy,” he said. “All I want is a growth path and stability for my employees.”
Another local business star on the rise is Asanda Imports in Kings Yard. The importer of home accents, jewelry and clothing from Asia opened five years ago this year and has enjoyed steady growth, such that owners Lee Kibblewhite and Molly Lunde have recently considered opening another store outside the area.
“Each year has been better than the last,” Kibblewhite said last week.
Though the business is tucked away at the back of the yard with no storefront window (an initial concern) and rents its space from building owners Christie and Brendan Comerford, Asanda has found ways to coax customers across a 20-yard stretch and through the front door, where many of them have become part of the store’s repeat business. And with some local support and essential customer base coming from out of town, the owners “really feel like we’re getting known now,” said Kibblewhite, whose business has been fortified by his long-time job as a wholesaler to European retailers.
Just across Xenia Avenue, Urban Handmade is also entering its fifth year in business with a similar trajectory of increases each year, owners D.J. and Justin Galvin said this week. The small store offers clothing, bags and jewelry with artisan prints, and despite the bad winter weather, had a “fantastic December” with holiday shoppers spending more on average per purchase than the previous year. The fall months were also positive, which D.J. Galvin sees as a sign of a recovering economy.
“It really looked like people are definitely feeling better about spending some of their income,” she said.
Galvin attributes much of their growth to increased familiarity customers from especially Columbus have gained with Yellow Springs. She estimates that 85 to 90 percent of their storefront business comes from tourists.
Urban Handmade is also supported by a design business the Galvins run in the back of their shop, where the branding and advertising business Clay+Stan serves local clients such as the Yellow Springs schools and the Chamber of Commerce, as well as those in the greater southwest Ohio region. And when business is truly slow, such as much of January, the Galvins closed their shop for a week and redecorated with fresh paint, new flooring, shelving and a lot of new merchandise.
Holding steady for long haul
Many businesses have been in town for a long time and despite the recession and the bad weather, are soldiering on as usual. Mr. Fub’s Party, owned by Priscilla Moore, is one that’s still going strong after 34 years in the same Xenia Avenue location. While sales have been pretty steady, said Moore, who weathered the recession by finding little ways to cut costs, what’s affected the business more than anything is increases in wage and insurance costs.
“I’ve worked hard to make things work, but it’s getting harder to make the same profit off the same amount of sales,” Moore said.
But the staff costs are worth the high quality, knowledgable service she wants for her customers. And while Internet sales haven’t helped much because of exorbitant freight costs, Moore continues to benefit from her underwriting support of PBS and her longtime involvment with the national small toy retailer organization. She feels sure sunnier times are coming soon.
“I’ve been here long enough to see the trends and know what’s up,” she said. “My personal opinion is the economy has picked up tremendously since the recession, and the revitalization of Antioch College will change the mix too.”
B.J. Walters had similar things to say about Ha Ha Pizza as a longtime local business. In the first couple years Walters owned the restaurant, he more than doubled its sales, he said. Then over the past five years, business plateaued and has remained in its pattern (recession withstanding) of mad sales in the summer months to balance negative sales in the winter months and even business in both the spring and fall.
“In the summer months because of tourism we go gangbusters,” he said. “But I lose money three months out of the year between December and March — if I could close I would.”
Not a food, but a clothing retailer, Kismet was significantly affected by the recession, though the business saw increased sales in both 2011 and 2012, with 2013 even with the previous year, according to store manager Chiai Okuda. Posting new items on its Facebook page, changing the window display often and starting a rewards discount program last year have helped to buoy sales for the clothing, shoe and accessories retailer. And particularly hopeful has been an increase in local customer traffic, which has increased from an estimated 40 percent to perhaps half of the store’s total business, Okuda said.
“We’re really grateful for the support from local people,” she said.
The Pangaea gift shop, owned by the same Cincinnati couple (Victor and Joceline Williams) who own Kismet (plus five other stores in Cincinnati and Athens, Ohio), has not rebounded with the economy as well, said Okuda, who also manages the gift shop.
“Pangaea is slower than I want them to be — that store is still affected,” she said, adding that last summer Pangaea “did really well.” Pangaea recently started carrying plus-size clothing, which has markedly boosted revenue.
The Dayton Street Gulch is another steady business owned for the past three years by Steve Edington, whose sales weren’t affected at all by the recession. People know the longtime bar by word of mouth, and though Edington doesn’t advertise much, the blues, funk and rock bands who perform help draw people in to bolster “the consistent delivery of a firm product,” according to Edington.
Some businesses revamping
For some local businesses, this year was too much to hang onto, and several closed, including Ohio Vintage above the Winds Cafe, Artistic Silver on Dayton Street (whose sister store Twisted Tines on Xenia Avenue is still going strong), Asian Collection in the Oten Gallery and Eco•Mental. For others, the recession worsened challenges, such as starting out new and struggling to land a customer base, keeping merchandise fresh and trying to interest customers in spending on “frivolities” like art.
Sweet Sanaa, a shoe store that opened just a year ago on Dayton Street, has had a tough go, according to owner Elaine Chappelle. The Dayton Street location was a challenge for a store trying to get its name out, and really bad weather over a first holiday season also weighed on the business, Chappelle said. The small store was so little known (and keeping mostly weekend hours during the winter) that recently a Yellow Springs resident stopped in and announced she had no idea they existed. But Chappelle is regrouping this winer and looking to tailor her stock to a wider range of ages and comfort needs. And committed to the local store as she is, Chappelle is determined to use advertising and radio to shine a brighter light on her business.
“I’m excited about a spring opening — we’re going to do it all over again,” she said this week.
Now in its 28th year, Rita Caz has a very different set of challenges and was greatly affected by the recession. Despite slowed sales, the custom jewelry business expanded its inventory in 2009 and moved from a tiny space in Kings Yard to the largest store in the yard. But sales didn’t increase as much as expenses did, so owners Gail Zimmerman and Mark Crockett have had to find ways to change with the times, Gail said last week.
With two stories and a basement, Rita Caz has opened the lower floor up for jewelry making and stone cutting classes, while guitar lessons (with new and antique guitars for sale) occur on the upper level. The business is now focusing less on high-end gold and silver and more on its own artistic jewelry pieces and heirloom jewelry repairs, as well as increasing store hours and working more, Zimmerman said. And coupled with the significant effort the Chamber of Commerce has made to draw visitors from communities such as Dayton, Cincinnati, Columbus and even Hillsboro, Zimmerman is hopeful.
“I believe the economy is improving, but Yellow Springs has also changed its approach as a destination host, which keeps Yellow Springs in people’s minds,” Zimmerman said.
Another long-time business “would you, could you” In a Frame expanded a few years earlier in 2005 from the south side of Corry Street to the space formerly occupied by Jo Holly’s drycleaning. As a custom art framer and an art dealer, business owner Sherryl Kostic has felt significantly affected by the recession, along with most in the fine art industry, she said.
“My vendors go to shows and we buy from them — I’m not selling what I have, and they’re not selling what they have,” she said.
While some of her business has been hurt by online art sales, Kostic sees in the quality of the art she has framed more recently, that people are spending less all around on art.
“What people are bringing in to be framed — it’s not great caliber work, it’s not art for the long term … this is what’s going on in the art world,” she said.
Still, Kostic said, she has seen a steady increase in out-of-town shoppers (snow and ice notwithstanding), and she plans to increase the number of art openings and events she advertises and hosts in her gallery this year to keep drawing those people in.
Long-time downtown anchor business Town Drug is also facing industry challenges, including insurance companies and mail orders that are reducing revenue or taking business away from the local supplier, according to Pharmacy Manager Janice Blandford. Business has been down each year the past several years, a situation exacerbated by the recent death of pharmacist Tim Rogers. The pharmacy will continue to keep locals in their prescriptions, however, and has no current plans for drastic change.
“We are hanging in there,” she said.