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Sunday, November 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 49.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Tough times on East Johnson
A vibrant retail district undergoes a difficult transition
Ramsey Finger at his bead shop: 'This is the worst I’ve seen it.'
Ramsey Finger at his bead shop: 'This is the worst I’ve seen it.'
Credit:Mary Langenfeld

Ramsey Finger worries that his store, Jade Mountain Bead and Jewelry, located on the 800 block of East Johnson Street, will be the next shop in that artsy retail district to hang a "For Rent" sign in the window.

During his eight years in business, Finger has weathered various economic conditions, including blows from competitors. But last year his sales were the worst ever. And given that at least six other businesses on the block have closed or relocated during this time, Finger is concerned.

"It's that never-ending retail cycle," he says. "It's always going to go in phases. It's not as simple as the economy, but it's tough times, definitely. This is the worst I've seen it in terms of open spaces."

Two years ago, East Johnson Street was hailed as an eclectic, up-and-coming retail district. Since then, an art store relocated, and a bookstore, vintage clothing outlet and art glass manufacturer have closed their doors.

Meanwhile, construction is now under way for a massive mixed-use development at Milwaukee Street and East Washington Avenue. Union Corners, which will cost $60 million for just the first stage, will boast 100,000 square feet of commercial space.

"It will probably contain a competitor to every one of our little businesses," says Teena Browder, co-owner of the Cork & Bottle liquor store. "I really wish the city would focus on these neighborhood districts, which are still around. These are real neighborhoods. This is the original new urbanism. The world is becoming so generic, and these neighborhoods are disappearing."

The area's alderperson, Brenda Konkel, says keeping businesses in the neighborhood is an ongoing struggle. She, too, faults the city's lack of foresight when it comes to fostering business growth in areas like East Johnson Street.

"We talk about economic development, but I don't think the city has any serious plan," she says. "We can do minor things as alders, like easing the parking rules, but the city isn't taking care of the big picture. There's been no analysis of what the issues are, let alone figuring out how to solve them."

East Johnson Street still bustles with commerce, and not all business owners are feeling the squeeze. Rhonda Hummel, co-owner of In the Company of Thieves, says her coffee shop experienced a decline in business following the art store's departure, but has since rebounded. Unlike Finger's bead store, the coffee shop's customers tend to live in the neighborhood. But, she adds, "It was nice to have those other stores to feed off of."

Heather Johnson, who opened the Glitter Workshop three years ago, says sales are climbing. "We don't feel like we depended on those stores, so it's hard to tell whether it's affected us," she says. "We're very sorry to see them go. It's a big loss for the neighborhood."

Teena Browder's father opened the Cork & Bottle liquor store in 1960. Since then, it has occupied three different locations on the 800 and 900 Blocks of East Johnson Street. It's been at its current spot since 1985.

Browder and her twin sister, Connie, have run the store since the mid-1970s. They own the building, which is one of the factors that have allowed it to survive.

"We didn't have to worry about being evicted. That really saved us," says Browder. "If I didn't have a 35-year perspective on how this stuff happens, I would be really nervous and concerned right now."

Over the years, Browder estimates at least 20 businesses have come and gone, including the recent spate of departures. Several existing businesses, like the coffee shop and the corner market, have changed hands many times. But rents have remained relatively affordable, making the area a prime location for new businesses.

Browder, esteemed by many as the neighborhood's matriarch, actually had her best year ever in 2006, in terms of total sales. But she agrees many of the street's small businesses have felt the squeeze from competitors over the years, mostly chain stores.

"That's part of this buy-local versus the big chain stores," she says. "There's definitely that dynamic, especially for Ramsey."

Finger's store specializes in beads imported from Nepal and Thailand, as well as semiprecious stones and sterling silver. He's expanded his inventory in recent years to include clothing he hand-selected while visiting Thailand. Like the Cork & Bottle, his store has occupied three different spaces on the block over the years.

Finger, who works a side job and can't afford to advertise, has taken to guerrilla marketing tactics, like handing out photocopied fliers. Neighborhood businesses have also collaborated on a punch-card program that Finger says netted some small gains. Even so, it can't replace the foot traffic brought by the art store and others.

Though it has been a tough, worrisome year, there are signs that the area is rebounding. New businesses have been seen scoping out vacant commercial spaces. And some businesses have found creative ways to stay afloat.

Studio Bloom, a floral shop, moved to a new location where it now shares space with the Glitter Workshop. Its former space was taken over last September by the Drunken Butterfly, a lifestyle boutique, which is helping restore vigor to the street.

"People leaving opens opportunities for us and others," says owner Layla Martin. "Every neighborhood goes through transformations. You just have to deal with it."

Browder recently learned that a design firm will soon move into the space occupied previously by the art store. Not the ideal retail business, she says, but it could be worse.

"We had a wonderful little art thing going for a while," says Browder. "There's so much commercial development in Madison, most of it chain stores. We're very lucky because the neighborhood is very supportive of our business district."

And Konkel stresses the value areas like the 800 and 900 blocks of East Johnson have for area residents.

"These community nodes make living downtown work, so people don't have to drive to the big boxes," she says. "As Madison grows more dense, these small neighborhood business districts will become more important."

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