Stepping into Wlady Daszkiewycz's Shoe Repair is like hopping into Doc's silver DeLorean from Back to the Future and traveling to an era when small shops lined the streets of Cleveland.
Tidy rows of leather shoes, jackets, and purses, and the pungent smell of leather fill the cozy, wood-paneled shop. Wlady, the 85-year-old proprietor, looks up and smiles when a customer comes in — something that happens a bit too rarely these days. He used to have plenty of company, but most of his neighbors have closed up and faded away.
After working as a cobbler for more than half a century, Wlady now runs his repair shop out of a narrow trailer parked in a used-car lot on Lorain Avenue. He used to rent a storefront on West 65th Street, but the owner let it fall into disrepair and the city eventually tore it down. These days, a cheap and modest space is all he needs anyway. A small sign advertises his hours — he's open every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday, it says. (He gave himself license to slack off to three days a week several birthdays ago.)
"When I grew up, I learned to fix things, but now everything is disposable," says Wlady, who emigrated from Austria to Cleveland in 1956 and raised his family in Brooklyn. He used to make ballet and dress shoes by hand, but now he just makes small repairs.
There are, of course, hundreds of Wladys across Greater Cleveland — artisans plying disappearing trades while fighting a rising tide of cheap, disposable goods made overseas. Old-fashioned businesses like the Cane Shop in Old Brooklyn or West Park Mower on Lorain Avenue are but two examples of the dying breed. Yet fortunately, the story of small retailers in Cleveland doesn't end there. In fact, as neighborhoods like downtown, Tremont, Ohio City, Detroit Shoreway, and Collinwood attract more and more residents, a new generation of urban shopkeepers is growing.
Just a few miles away from Wlady's trailer, entrepreneur Danielle DeBoe is humming a different tune about the future of retail. Last summer, emboldened by the success of her four-year-old Ohio City boutique Room Service, DeBoe partnered with clothing designer Sean Bilovecky to open Dredgers Union, a new 4,000-square-foot store on East Fourth Street.
"Local, independent stores offer something different than homogenized, big-box retailers do, and people are increasingly cognizant of that," says DeBoe, whose goal is to reawaken shoppers' appetite for retail in downtown Cleveland, an area that once boasted five major department stores, but saw its last one — Dillard's — close for good in 2001.
DeBoe and Bilovecky have taken a big leap of faith, and they aren't the only ones. In recent years, as revitalized urban areas have attracted artists, young professionals, and empty nesters, a fresh wave of bike shops, boutiques, flower shops, small gyms, vintage specialists, and clothing stores have followed. Historic, older suburbs such as Lakewood and Cleveland Heights have also seen a spate of trendy new stores, often occupying long-dormant space on major thoroughfares like Lee Road and Madison Avenue.
Some experts studying the phenomenon argue that these start-up retailers may be a generational trend: Millennials are more likely to start new businesses than their forebears, they argue. "When I hear from young people who want to get off the careerist treadmill and do something meaningful ... what's really hip is social entrepreneurship," wrote author and book critic William Deresiewicz, in an essay published in The New York Times in November. "Today's ideal social form is not the commune or the movement or even the individual creator as such; it's the small business. Call it Generation Sell."
Those watching the trend in Cleveland say that this new class of retailers is not only capitalizing on urban redevelopment, but also flourishing despite a tough economy.
"New, urban retailers are providing niche market services as neighborhoods like Ohio City reach critical mass," says Eric Wobser, director of Ohio City Inc., a nonprofit community development corporation that has successfully lured new shops to West 25th and Lorain Avenue in the past year. "The ones who are successful become anchors in their own right by appealing to locals who want high-quality services with a personal touch."
"This is the right economy for people to take risks they might otherwise not take," adds Robert Simons, a professor at the Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University who is also the faculty advisor for the school's Certificate Program in Real Estate Development and Finance. "There's a lot of detachment from the formal workplace, and because of gloomy job prospects, there aren't a lot of opportunity costs to being an entrepreneur. The question is, can these businesses grow and survive?"
TAKING THE LEAP
One unifying theme among retailers popping up in Cleveland neighborhoods is that they've each transformed a personal passion into a successful business. By marrying their talents with a market niche that's not being addressed by others, they've been able to launch new stores built on big dreams, spare change, and grit.
Bilovecky and DeBoe started Dredgers Union because they share a passion for clothing design and retail, and wanted to bring unique, high-quality goods back to downtown. A painting on the wall of Dredgers Union aptly sums up the store's appeal. It reads: "Supporting Domestically Produced Values."
"We believe in supporting locally and regionally made goods wherever possible," says Bilovecky, whose private label offers custom, made-to-measure men's suits, denim jeans, and casual, button-down shirts designed in Cleveland and manufactured in the U.S. "Our label retails for less than many other 'made in the U.S.A.' products, which is something that really makes us stand out from other stores across the country."
Chris Sorenson runs Crafty Goodness, a new, 800-square-foot store on Madison Avenue in Lakewood that sells hand-crafted, locally-made jewelry, art, and other goods. She first tested the market through pop-up shows with the Cleveland Craft Coalition, finally launching her store in response to customers' increased interest in buying local and supporting artists. "There isn't another store in Northeast Ohio that's exactly like ours," she says.
Alex Nosse of Joy Machines Bike Shop on West 25th hatched the idea of opening a small, urban bike repair and sales shop while cycling from Cleveland to San Francisco with a friend over the summer of 2010. "It was a light-bulb moment," he says. "I realized how much passion I had for cycling and that I wanted to do something bike-related."
Lisa Dunn of Revive, a fair-trade clothing store with locations on Lee Road in Cleveland Heights and Legacy Village, decided to go into retail five years ago after taking a trip abroad. "While traveling in Guatemala with a human-rights organization, I met a group of women artisans trying to sustain themselves, and their apparel was very creative and unique," she says. "I was struck with a vision and didn't sleep for an entire weekend — I realized I could help these women by opening a fair-trade boutique in Cleveland."
For these independent retailers, however, being successful required more than their passion. They also needed big megaphones to tell their stories.
THE RIGHT TIME FOR SMALL-TIME
Perhaps more than ever before, today's new generation of shopkeepers has tapped into a national zeitgeist: the desire to find alternatives beyond today's big-box-saturated retail world. "Shop local" has been a rallying cry for a long time now, yet only in recent years has it gained enough clout to be a true economic force.
"It's definitely a growing trend nationally," says Mike Kubinski, co-owner of CLE Clothing, which sells hip, ironic Cleveland-themed T-shirts. (One example: a retro homage to the old Richfield Coliseum, a.ka. "The Palace on the Prairie.") Kubinski recently quit his day job as a graphic designer to open his CLE store on East Fourth Street. "What we're offering is cool, positive, and something different," he says of the store, which came about when East Fourth developer Ari Maron approached him about creating a hip shop to help bring balance to the restaurant-dominated street.
Whatever they're selling, retailers say their success in today's economy hinges on being part of a vibrant area — a unique place where like-minded shops play off of each other.
"Working together with other merchants to plan events is a huge part of our marketing," says Megan Coffman, manager of Native Cleveland, an apparel shop created by CLE Clothing this year in the Waterloo Arts District in North Collinwood. Coffman and other retailers have been involved in promoting "Walk All Over Waterloo," a series of regular, seasonal events that promote the district as a shopping destination. Similar events have been held in the Gordon Square Arts District in Detroit Shoreway as well as Tremont, Ohio City, and other neighborhoods. One common result: a growing synergy among retailers.
Alex Nosse of Joy Machines, which caters to entry-level cyclists as well as serious commuters and individuals seeking a car-free lifestyle, says he chose Ohio City because he wanted to be part of a growing, tightly-knit community. The adjacent storefront was empty when he first moved in, yet it has since attracted another new tenant. "I wouldn't be surprised if every empty space on West 25th is filled within a year," he says.
One natural challenge to small businesses is that they often must market their wares with little or no budget, necessitating creative, shoestring measures that are effective — and free.
Revive, which launched a second, larger store in Legacy Village two years ago, is constantly on the hunt for new, low-cost ways to promote itself. "We have to be grassroots because we have no marketing budget," says Dunn, who organized four off-site sales and a fashion show in December.
"Social media is so important for small retailers," says Coffman, adding that Facebook and Twitter offer invaluable tools for free or low-cost marketing. CLE Clothing, for one, had been an online retailer for four years before creating its first bricks-and-mortar shop in 2011.
Most small stores cannot compete against big boxes on price alone. Yet even as chains offer recession-busting discounts aimed at luring shoppers from the sidelines, independents are attracting customers by offering unique experiences and products.
Dunn works with artisans in Guatemala and other countries to help them develop their products and market them in the U.S. Her stunning, colorful collection of scarves, bags, and clothing are unlike anything available in major retailers — or even other boutiques. Yet nurturing fair-trade businesses can be very time-consuming. "We buy their product, help them design it, and help them export it," she says. "These steps add a whole additional layer to what we do, and we have to absorb that cost."
To promote her unique, colorful apparel, Dunn touts Revive as a mission-based alternative. "I view our stores as David versus Goliath — small stores like ours versus the repressive sweatshop industry."
Because many of Joy Machines' customers also shop online, Nosse constantly checks his prices against what's available on the internet. He knows that he can't always compete with vendors operating out of remote warehouses, but his competitive advantage is in the fact that he and his partner, Renato Pereira-Castillo, literally live and breathe bikes. The two have known each other since they were teens growing up in Ohio City; before opening a store, they spent time fixing bikes in their friends' garages.
"We're able to recommend products, and we have a vested interest in what we're selling," says Nosse. Online customers would also miss the unique flavor of Nosse's store. Joy Machines' walls are adorned with bike-themed murals by Cleveland artist Haley Morris. A rendering of the Guardians of Transportation from the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge covers one wall, but the car that the historic statue carries is supplanted by a bicycle.
FROM SURVIVAL MODE TO GROWTH MODE
The prime location of Dredgers Union extends to its welcoming interior and varied offerings: Boasting high ceilings and vintage wood floors, the store features lamps, bedding, kitchen items, perfumes and soaps, women's lounge apparel — even a children's section. Since launching the store in July, DeBoe and Bilovecky have been surprised by the number of out-of-town visitors they've seen.
"They ask if I have a location in their city, and then rave about the store and insist that I open one where they live," DeBoe says with a laugh. "I'm excited because we're providing out-of-towners with a more well-rounded retail experience."
The creators of Dredgers Union also hope their private-label clothing line will gain attention elsewhere. "We really want Dredgers Union to stand out on a national platform as being something truly special," says Bilovecky, who attracted widespread buzz for creating his own clothing line, Wrath Arcane, before partnering with DeBoe.
Kubinski of CLE Clothing also hopes to get a boost from increasing tourism — especially as the Medical Mart, Convention Center, and Horsehoe Casino open their doors. His new store is located adjacent to Positively Cleveland, the travel and tourism agency for Northeast Ohio. A cut-out door between the two storefronts has turned CLE Clothing into the agency's de facto gift shop.
"Instead of the lame stuff usually for sale in visitors' centers, they can buy something locally designed and unique," he says. "It's a cool relationship that's just beginning."
As for ventures like Joy Machines, Nosse says his business will grow with the neighborhood. As Ohio City has become a more popular place to live in recent years, retail choices have lagged behind, he says. Yet now, stores are filling the gap.
"There was definitely an underserved market in Ohio City," says Nosse. "We often hear people say to us, 'I've always wanted there to be a bike shop right around here that does what you guys are doing.' So it seems like we were pretty spot-on."
AN ENCOURAGING CLIMATE
If you're looking for an upside to the economic downturn, Kubinski says that it lies in the fact that commercial real estate is more affordable than it's been in decades. The plethora of spiffy, cheap storefronts convinced him to take the plunge into retail.
"When we started looking, we found nice spaces for four to five hundred bucks a month," he says. "You can get a storefront for minimal cost and give life back to the city."
Rock-bottom prices coupled with low-interest financing and a host of incentives have proven to be a magic formula for attracting new retailers, says Wobser of Ohio City Inc. "We received start-up grant dollars from Charter One Bank, and they've been a huge success. It allowed a group of entrepreneurs sitting on the edge to take a leap and go for it."
Although Charter One funding was limited to the Ohio City neighborhood, a bevy of other incentives are available to retailers and property owners in Cleveland and inner-ring suburbs. They include the City of Cleveland's Storefront Renovation Program, as well as low-interest loans and grants from the city's Economic Development Department. In inner-ring suburbs around Cleveland, the Cuyahoga County Department of Economic Development also offers a Storefront Renovation Program, which includes a rebate to owners and tenants who complete signage and other improvements.
Nosse launched Joy Machines with the help of a $9,000 Charter One grant, coupled with a match from the property owner. Although he and Pereira-Castillo already knew they wanted to open a bike shop, the grant kicked things into high gear. "We went from talking about it to opening the shop in six months."
BACK TO THE FUTURE
The region's fledgling indie stores are successful because they're filling critical gaps within the urban market, Wobser asserts. National chains have long overlooked neighborhoods like Ohio City because of their complex, economically diverse population, which simply doesn't fit their cut-and-dried model of counting rooftops and household income. The new stores rushing in to fill the gap are providing basic goods and services.
"This new wave of retailers is tapping into a niche, urban market by catering to locals and providing more everyday products — items like bikes and flowers," he says.
Ironically, small shops might be flourishing in part because of the proliferation of Walmart, Target and other big boxes throughout Northeast Ohio, CSU's Simons says. "The entrepreneurs come in because the Walmarts have knocked out their mom-and-pop competition, but the Walmarts don't knock them out because they're flies," he says. "Can you pack a bunch of these in an area and make a node out of it? Online businesses are on the rise, but service businesses will survive that trend."
That's not saying that it's easy or without its stumbling blocks. Being a shopkeeper often means enduring long hours, little or no staff support, and daunting financial risk. Yet many say it's worth it to do what they love — and to find success on their own terms.
"Five years after starting my business, I realize how hard it is to be sustainable, let alone profitable," says Dunn, who launched her store to "revive" her own passion for life and work. Starting Revive was the most difficult thing she's ever done, and along the way she's taken on heavy debt and even tested the strength of her marriage. "Yet for the artisans that we work with, I'm often their biggest link to the U.S. market," she says. "When I look back at what we've done, I feel fantastic."
Nosse loves being around bikes and working with customers so much that he doesn't mind the regular 10-hour days. "I've met so many cool and interesting people, and we see ourselves as a community space," he says. Indeed, Joy Machines has become a hub for the cycling community and serves as the launch point for group rides.
While the rise of small, urban shopkeepers may be a hot new trend in North Collinwood or Ohio City, the phenomenon is, in many ways, as ancient as human settlement. "These shop owners are recreating a lifestyle that was displaced just in the last century by the automobile," Wobser says. "Residents of Ohio City still value the experience of shopping in a small, local store that is part of a neighborhood."
As for Wlady? He continues to toil away in his trailer three days a week. At least his work gets him out of the house, he says. Yet the octogenarian might also take comfort in the fact that his bootstraps success has not been lost on the newest generation.
"When you don't have much opportunity, you have to grab what you can," he says, offering a crinkled, sage smile and turning back to his workbench piled with shoes.