Guest post by Cathy Lloyd, The Village
In the summer of 2007, I had an idea to help the state of retail on the square in downtown Washington, Iowa. Since Wal-Mart came to town in the ‘70s, there had been a steady decline in the number of retail businesses in the downtown area. I hoped by making shopping an “experience” we could keep some Washington people in town instead of defecting to Iowa City….but I knew it would have to be really unique.
A large historic two-story building on the square was in the process of being renovated. I talked to the owner about my idea to have a retail complex on the first floor. I would call it “The Village”, and it would consist of small boutique-type shops surrounding a central courtyard. The shops would be designed with wood façade fronts to replicate a turn-of-the century Iowa village. Clapboard siding, awnings and window boxes would be features, and each shop front would be different. I would rent the main area from the building’s owner, divide it into small shops at my own expense, and those shop “owners” would pay me rent.
In addition, the courtyard would feature vendor carts, and a comfortable sitting area (our “gentlemen’s area”, we call it!) Complimentary coffee—or in the summer, lemonade— would be available. The rent for the vendor carts would be on a month-to-month basis, and would give timid souls the opportunity to “get their feet wet” in retail before moving into a shop. Thus The Village would act as a true incubator: vendor cart users might move into shops, and shop owners might move on to their own stand-alone shops.
A central checkout area would enable shoppers to wander from store to store with their shopping basket without having to pay for their purchases in each shop. Shop owners would not need individual counters and employees in their shop, allowing for the maximization of space.
I knew I wanted to concentrate on retail…not beauty shops, insurance, consignment shops or tattoo parlors! Some ideas for shops I originally envisioned:
- Year–Round Xmas Shop
- Books and Stationery Shop
- Women’s Specialty Shop
- Quilt Shop
- Antique Shop
- Tea Room
Each shop would be decorated and furnished by the renter. All shops would be expected to maintain the same store hours, and participate in any sales or promotions. The shops would be, by design, small. My goal was to attract those who always had a dream of owning their own shop, but didn’t have the funds necessary to purchase a building or pay high rent. The small size of each shop would only require a small investment in inventory…and if the worst happened and the shop had to close, at least it hadn’t depleted one’s life savings, and shop owners would have the satisfaction of knowing that they at least tried something they always wanted to do.
Once I got the go-ahead from the building’s owner, I set to work designing the complex—I wanted to stay true to the 1890s architecture of Washington— and I wanted to maximize every inch of space. No one could quite envision what I had in mind, and those who could told me the space was too small. They didn’t know what I was going to do with a pole right smack in the middle of the store (it became a tree!), and my banker asked my husband if I was “crazy”!!!
We began construction in the fall of 2007, and moved into The Village in July of 2008…the day they poured concrete for the sidewalk in front of our store! Since the downtown area was such a mess, we weren’t able to have a Grand Opening until the next summer! But that didn’t stop the customers from coming!
I was fortunate to find five varied and unique shops to fill the Village at the beginning. The current residents of The Village are:
- “Girlfriends” gifts for girls of all ages;
- “Petticoat Ranch” a touch of the Old West;
- “Village Kids” a spot for tots;
- “The Soaring Sparrow” gourmet coffees, teas and linens
- “Creations by Char” unique, handpainted clothing and accessories
- “Plethora” featuring shabby chic handpainted furniture and accessories
The vendor carts are always rented, with a nice variety of merchandise.
The Village shops range from 80 to 144 square feet, with most being 120 sq ft. The rent is based on square footage, and includes all utilities, liability insurance, some expenses such as packaging, fees and dues, minimal advertising, as well as the additional “common space” in the courtyard and the display windows. In addition, there is a “gallery wall”, where local artists can display their work for a small commission fee.
All shop owners take turns working at the central check out counter, the hours they work are based on the square footage of their shops(s). This eliminates the further expense of hiring part time help.
The recession years haven’t been the best climate for retail, but we are persevering. The economy took a nose dive, and suddenly no one had any money. We were counting on attracting customers from Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, but then came the floods, and those poor souls had to use their shopping money to rebuild their homes. The higher gas prices actually worked in our favor, as those spur of the moment trips to the mall became less frequent. Then there was the street construction, a bitter cold and icy winter, and a mini-tornado! The plagues of Egypt had nothing on us! We began to think we were jinxed.
But compliments from the townspeople keep us going; and daily we hear things like “This is so neat!”; “It looks like Galena in here!”; from a group of Iowa City women: “To heck with the Amanas…we’re coming here from now on!”, and “I live in St. Louis, and I can’t find some of these things there!”.
I truly believe that this is the future of retail in small communities, and we plan to be here for a long time!
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Becky started Small Biz Survival in 2006 to share rural business and community building stories and ideas with other small town business people. She and her husband have a small cattle ranch and are lifelong entrepreneurs. Becky is an international speaker on small business and rural topics.