March 1, 2004

Rapid Turnover Defines Collegetown

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Although the crowds of students out on weekends attest to the success of many Collegetown bars and restaurants, the local retail stores often do not receive the same attention. It seems that one of the unfailing cycles of change in Collegetown retail is the opening and closing of new stores.

In the past few years, both the Sam Goody music store and the used CD store Now and Then have gone out of business — the Sam Goody store just after Christmas. Sun Capital Partners decided to close down the Collegetown Sam Goody after they bought the entire chain because it was one of the least profitable stores in the country, according to a December 2003 Sun article.

The problem of retail businesses turning a profit seems to extend to more than just music stores however.

“Retail hasn’t done well,” said Greg Silverman, co-owner of Stella’s. “We’ve seen a lot of places come and go.”

In comparison to the large number of restaurants and bars in the area, Collegetown currently has a small number of retail outlets. Many focus on selling food, like Collegetown Market, Collegetown Candy and Nuts and Sweetwater Market.

Some local business owners said that Collegetown is a niche area into which many retail stores simply do not fit.

“It’s very service oriented up here,” Silverman said.

Part of the problem may be that many students do their shopping elsewhere, such as Route 13 and Pyramid Mall.

“The retail marketplace has changed in this community,” said Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Ithaca Downtown Partnership. “There’s more and more competition, more and more options.”

Students also shop at home, citing a larger variety and selection as reasons for not buying products locally.

“You’re not going to buy stuff in Ithaca,” said Phil Lee ’04.

Currently, there are some newer shops that are working to survive. Babakool, which sells locally made glass and gifts, has been open for about a year.

The owner, Jud Wipf, said that he has not yet turned a profit, but thinks his business is growing.

“It’s slow, but steady,” he said.

Also, he said that two federal projects last year to shut down head shops, Operation Pipe Dream and Operation Headhunter, may have affected his business negatively.

Wipf said he wishes there were more retail stores in Collegetown, although he did not know why they tended to fail.

“I’m kind of here on a personal mission to enlighten Collegetown, [to show students] that there’s more than bars and food,” he said.

The retail stores that do survive and thrive seem to become Collegetown institutions. The 30 years The Bike Rack has existed appear nearly insignificant compared to Fontana’s Shoes, which has been in business for over 95 years.

The retailers who have been profitable say that they fill a need that others may miss.

Bryan Morin, manager of The Bike Rack, attributes their success to selling a practical and needed product.

He said that between August and mid-September, “It’s a zoo in here because everyone likes to have transportation.”

Likewise, Jes Seaver, manager of the newly reopened Sweetwater Market, said they also cater to a specific need.

“[Students] are very focused people. They’re not shopping — they need to eat. Sweetwater Market fills a niche,” she said.

Other businesspeople suggested that the high rent in the area makes keeping a retail store open especially difficult. Some of the most expensive property in Ithaca is in Collegetown, according to Silverman.

“I think the rent is extremely high up [here],” Morin said. “You’re paying the rent that is equivalent of being in major cities.”

Dana Lee ’05, manager of Miyake, agreed and commented that rent affects even profitable restaurants.

“If you lowered the rent, they’d stay,” she said. “Even [for] the restaurants, it’s hard to survive.”

In particular, turning a profit with high rent can be difficult for businesses when the University is not in session.

“If you can’t make your money in seven months, don’t come here,” said Sam Schuepbach, owner of Aladdin’s Natural Eatery.

Although it is a problem limited to music stores and not specific to Collegetown, the proliferation of downloading music from the Internet may be hurting local business as well.

“We don’t need to buy records when we can get it free online,” Lee said.

Archived article by Shannon Brescher