Area consumers know it well: Gas prices in California are the nation’s highest, the value of the dollar is down, and a whole lot of belt tightening in how people spend their hard earned cash, has become rote for the economic woes of 2008.
Business owners are not immune to the effects of the American economic downswing. In Ventura, several retailers are feeling the bite of slagging sales. Mapped out, some local business experts feel it’s a matter of proximity, the Midtown commercial district suffering more with most of the city’s pedestrian traffic trekking almost exclusively through the Downtown.
However, other shops in Midtown are thriving with profits, lending to the view of some retailers that it all comes down to the success of the industry one chooses to sell in.
With the announced closure last week of longtime Telegraph Road children’s bookstore Adventures for Kids, independent booksellers across Ventura have experienced weakened sales in part to location. Local literary merchants are also in accord over the book industry’s vulnerability to chain stores and the Internet age.
In 2005, Barbara O’Grady assumed ownership of the Midtown-based Adventures for Kids, which enjoyed the adoration of generations of parents and children for more than 30 years.
The store has remained popular, said O’Grady, and new families arrive to the greater Ventura area regularly. But the economy, though, still dictates sales at the popular store in spite of its easy interior accessibility.
“I think the reason people come here is for a more intimate environment for their kids, and they don’t have to worry about an escalator,” O’Grady said. But, she added, “People are choosing to shop differently.”
According to Jody Shapiro, its former owner, location makes little difference in any bookstore succeeding or failing.
“I don’t think the location is as much a factor for Adventures for Kids as it is other factors,” she said. “A lot of cars drive by on Telegraph and Mills (roads).”
Shapiro cited the tendency of consumers to opt for Web destinations like Amazon or Barnes & Noble as one reason why second-hand booksellers have suffered as of recent.
“So many people will buy something on eBay but not locally,” said Dan Long, vice chair of the Midtown Ventura Community Council.
For others, location is critical. Bank of Books remained in the Downtown when it relocated just a notch south on Main Street two years ago, yet while still successful, owner Clarey Rudd has noticed a difference with diminished foot traffic there.
“It makes a big difference for retail, if you move a block or two,” he said.
Ironically, another of Rudd’s division stores, the Abednego Book Shoppe, experiences better sales, with better floor space to boot, since its move to upper Main Street in the Midtown vicinity; its former storefront on Thompson Avenue, closer to the Downtown, remains vacant years later.
Other factors also come into play when determining commercial viability — even in the Downtown. Rob Edwards, executive director of the Downtown Ventura Organization, said delays in ongoing road improvements — originally scheduled for completion last month — have impacted business along lower Main Street and its cross streets.
“There are certainly businesses that are being hurt by the construction,” Edwards said. “It’s not the economy as much as it is access and dirt.”
It also depends on the retail market, according to business owners along Telegraph Road who rely on a customer base through appointments and in-person appearances.
“I think the reason we’ve done so well is two things: Services in the salon and gifts,” said Mary Livingston, owner of Lavender Blue.
Bill Howard’s California Kitchen Creations moved from Front Street in Downtown to Telegraph Road a year and a half ago, but has suffered little after the move.
“We’re bobbing along OK,” Howard said. “Our showroom traffic is down a little bit, but I think that’s across the board for this kind of business.”
“It depends on the business,” said Zoe Taylor, president of the Ventura Chamber of Commerce. “It’s like how some restaurants are struggling, but others are doing well. It’s the nature of the business, how aggressive people are marketing, and how well they’re bringing people in.”
One may argue that the failure of a local ballot measure may have impacted Midtown businesses in the long run. “Measure A” would have seen the creation of a redevelopment zone in the Midtown, along with a sales tax increment there, helping to fund the redesign of Midtown storefronts. But whether it was lack of voter interest or just awkwardly worded, voters turned it down in 1998.
“It was a poorly explained effort,” said Ventura City Councilmember Carl Morehouse. “Because it was, it was a missed opportunity.”
Those pushing for better Midtown commercial viability are not giving up hope.
Chamber President Taylor said officials are in the planning stages of ushering in a Fresh & Easy market, similar to Whole Foods, to the intersection of Thompson and Seaward avenues.
“It’s an exciting opportunity to bring in a neighborhood market to the Midtown area,” she said. “If that one works well, they might be interested in locating additional stores in the Ventura area.”
Long, of the Midtown Ventura Community Council, has faith in the Midtown’s commercial future.
“We’re waiting for the Midtown corridor to be the go-between,” he said. “I think it’ll be a few years before things change much. Hopefully businesses can hold on and we’ll get people to support them.”