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What's lost when local shop owner closes her doors

Closing Time

Joan Miller

Our global economy is the weakest it has been in more than a half century, and the recession is starting to affect independent retailers in Buffalo. Over the past two weeks, two of the region’s signature boutiques, Chique Boutique in South Buffalo and Definitely Buffalo in Downtown Buffalo, have announced that they are shutting their doors.

According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, 73,000 stores, public and private, will close in the first half of the year—double normal estimates for a full year. Mainstream media has largely focused on retail closings of the big-box variety (Circuit City, Starbucks, and Office Depot) and have paid less attention to independent retailers, even though some studies suggest that they may be far more vulnerable. For example, in a poll of 400 city officials conducted by the National League of Cities, a nonprofit group that represents municipal governments, 63 percent said that locally owned, “Main Street” sellers are being hit the hardest by the economic downturn.

The loss of local, independent retailers is critical. When they close we do not simply lose a place to buy things; we lose our sense of community, our economic anchors, and a piece of our regional identity.

A newcomer to Buffalo could easily get a snapshot of the city’s culture by stepping into Definitely Buffalo. Everything in the store is Buffalo-themed: shirts, scarves, stuffed animals, ornaments, magnets, baby clothes, hats—some kitschy (a placard that reads, “There’s no place like home…except grandma’s”) some exceptional (like the matching earring and necklace set made from shale gathered at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Graycliff Estate). This dedication to our regional identity is everywhere in evidence: Behind the register, where others display their first dollar-bill earned, Joan Miller, the store’s owner, has taped Buffalo nickels.

The Buffalo theme is clear, but what drives customer loyalty is clearly Miller. She is quick to engage customers in discussion and keep them coming back for more. She’s been told, “You should have a coffee pot here.” Other customers have proposed designating a certain part of the store the “conversation corner.”

Last Monday, a young Taiwanese employee of a local bank walked in, “You’re closing?” she asked in disbelief. She was looking for a t-shirt. Miller assiduously jumped into action: “Well let’s see if we can find your size, you’re so thin…” Miller and the customer reminisce; they’ve known each other for three years. “You always recognized me,” the customer said.

After they found the right shirt, Miller invited the customer to leave her contact information in a book. “Do let me know if you reopen this store,” the woman wrote.

For 14 years, Miller has traced the lives of her customers as if they were family: “I have them come in as college students and then they come back when they graduate from college, and then they stop in to look for an item to put in their wedding bags and then for things for their first baby.” This relationship with her customers, she explained, helped her find them a meaningful, personalized gifts.

Miller has contributed her time and resources to Sister’s Hospital, Literacy Volunteers of Buffalo, Western New York Independent Living, the Police Athletic League, and high schools such as Sacred Heart and St. Francis. She has also proudly served beer at Thursday in the Square, the downtown concert series, which she attends religiously. This season she hopes to reconnect with former customers there.

This community kinship might explain why the Main Street window of Definitely Buffalo simply bears the words “Good Bye.” “I simply couldn’t bring myself to write ‘Closing,’” Miller said.

Long before this recession, when Buffalo already had more than its share of economic woes, numerous national retailers abandoned the Main Place Mall, but not Miller. “If I could reopen, I would be in the same place—definitely. Where else could you have a city-themed store other than the heart of the city?” She noted that downtown Buffalo employs nearly 45,000 people. Area anchors such as the Convention Center, office buildings, and even the court houses draw regular customers.

Miller believes in the city and has consistently promoted it. She recalled a phone conversation from a prospective customer who asked, “You mean I have to come downtown?” Without missing a beat, Miller answered yes. And why wouldn’t they? A major reason that Miller stayed in the Main Place Mall is that it attracts so many interesting people. “They’re just different,” she said. “You don’t get the typical people plowing through the malls. They have heart, they’re genuine, appreciate people, and they’re looking for a unique concept.”

I asked Miller whether there were any government representatives or business support organizations that could have done anything to help keep Definitely Buffalo open. She stared at me blankly, as if such an entitlement had never crossed her mind. “One time Tony Masiello discovered my store,” she said. During the Heart of Buffalo campaign spearheaded by the city’s former telecommunications director, Tom Tarapacki, which encouraged people to give gifts from locally owned stores on Valentine’s Day, Mayor Masiello and his wife stopped into Definitely Buffalo to buy a Buffalo-themed gift.

“Maybe I should have been out there more,” Miller said.

She considered closing the store last year after the country saw a spike in gas prices. A self-described “eternal optimist,” she decided that things might get better this year. But the economy has not recovered. She made the decision a month ago in March. “Financially, when you take from your personal retirement to support your passion, it’s not viable,” she said.

Many independent store owners do not simply run a store for the money—they do it because it is what they truly love. When profits dry up, some take on a second job, or cut their own pay to keep the lights on.

Independent retail is a reciprocal exercise. Much of Definitely Buffalo’s stock came from discoveries Miller unearthed over years of travel. Artists are often their worst critics, and so too are purveyors: Though the shelves of her store are full of great gifts, Joan could no longer bring in the special items that perhaps made more of a difference to her than to her customers. “I can’t bring in what I want to bring in—I can’t make my customers happy the way I want, then you say, ‘Why am I here?’”

She calls her decision to close—her respite from working six days a week for 14 years in a declining economy—“selfish.”

When asked what she would do when the store closes, Miller said she is reluctantly considering selling some items on e-Bay. But she’s ambivalent: “I can’t see myself doing that on-line. I can’t say to someone, ‘Oh, your daughter would love this.’ You just can’t personalize every sale. The thought of being in front of a computer in some confined area…it’s just not me.”

amy kedron

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