Friday, June 1, 2012

Bridgeport’s Slow-Pop Retail Scene

If artists really have powers to re-start neighborhood economies, Ed Marszewski and the band of co- conspirators who planned the Version 12 arts festival this year set out to deploy them, and spread the impact as far as it could go.

The Co-Prosperity Sphere was made into a department store for small batch goods of local manufacture, First Trinity Lutheran lent itself as a concert venue, Benton House hosted “Art Bowl,” the afternoon fair for “Bridgeport Day” and a Community Supper Club. Saturday nights, neighborhood food trucks gathered in the parking lot next to Maria’s so neighbors could mill around and socialize, an event that turned out to be so popular the neighbors lobbied to keep it going all summer long.

And on top of all that, a dozen storefronts on Morgan and Halsted Streets opened their doors as “pop-up shops.”

Pop-up retail is a term coined by in 2004 (according to Elaborating the concept over the years, the group evokes the influence of the entertainment economy, the experience economy and, a new personal favorite, the “surprise economy.”

A guerilla retailer installs a collection of merchandise in a vacant storefront in an edgy location, sells it til it’s gone, then disappears. The merchandise might be one-off items from emerging designers, or get-it-while-you-can-edition products from established brands.

Trendwatching says consumers like it because it’s “discovery driven” and “massclusive.” The motives of retailers are various. Small designers can showcase their own designs. Big brands, like Target, can move with agility their big stores don’t afford them. Now, real estate agents use it to make interim use of vacant properties. But Version Festival might be unique in trying to mobilize it as a community development tool.

Whether it works or not, the Bridgeport pop-ups were certainly a good sampler of what Bridgeport is like now.

A Sample of Bridgeport as It Is Now
Spring Pop was a collaborative of 5 artists who curated stuff from their own collections at 3143 South Morgan. They had photography, scented bath salts, second hand clothes (“but they’re all our own things, not from thrifts”), and some heartbreaking boutonniere-size arrangements emerging florist Elizabeth Buchanan made from calla lilies she grows on a lot on Racine.

Ray Emerick opened his studio at 3149 South Morgan for children’s movies on Saturday afternoons. One mother told him his first Saturday would have been even better attended, but a local gang had posted plans to host a street fight that day on Facebook, so other Morgan Street mothers were keeping their kids home.

MN Gallery has been open at 3524 South Halsted Halsted Street for 13 years now. Owner Jim Molnar says he and his wife are “still looking for the best way to deploy the gallery as a for profit business, with our energy level.” During the festival they hosted 2 afternoons of salons: artists presented their work and a small audience was encouraged to discuss it.

County Commissioner John Daley donated the storefront next to his office at 3526 South Halsted to the project. It was vacant for much of the festival, but after some weeks of suspense, it now displays 2 large paintings, one of them is a vaguely menacing take on a B-News Update blog-post about childhood ballgames. (The author does recall learning to ‘defend your turf.’) B-News Update is itself a great running commentary on Bridgeport – the editors keep up with new developments, and occasionally reminisce about the neighborhood of their youth.

Back at the Version 12 pop-up project, storefronts behind Blue City Cycles opened up as Enoch’s Donuts (with bacon and bourbon, and other inspired flavors), and Paratext, a community book store fully stocked almost entirely from donations.

Finally, the third storefront behind the bike shop hosted some cool Wicker Park retailers who each took a turn for a week-end, lending Bridgeport’s retail project a little bit of their cache. Quimby’s, the famous zine-purveyor, made a brief appearance. Opening week-end, the store was occupied by Dusty Groove, a record shop sympathetic to Ed’s experiment.

In fact, Rick Wojcik, who owns Dusty Groove, says Ed Marszewski’s been trying to recruit him to open a store in Bridgeport for some time. He likes the idea, it’s one of the first neighborhood’s he’d consider. Though he hesitates over resources – staff, inventory, money – and because he’s not sure he would gain new customers, or if his Bridgeport customers already shop at his Wicker Park store.

He estimates it’s easier for Reckless Records or Dr. Wax, stores with more mainstream collections, to open branches. But adds, “I’m a big believer in retail shaping the city.” After all, “Why does anybody love a neighborhood?” It’s usually where their favorite shops and restaurants are.

So now that the Version 2012 experiment is over, how might Bridgeport retail take shape?

Bridgeport Retail as It Might Be Someday
Colleen at the South Loop Chamber of Commerce is inclined to defend Bridgeport’s retail track record now. The Chamber conducts a survey of retail vacancies every August. She declines to share the results from last year’s survey, but argues Bridgeport doesn’t have more retail vacancies than other places, it’s just that stores we have move around. “Stores occupy a space, they fail, they re-open down the street.”

Wojcik says Bridgeport today reminds him of Wicker Park 13 years ago, when Dusty Grove was looking for space there. In fact, Dusty Groove is an encouraging example of the kind of business that might take root here. The store specializes in small labels, limited edition, hard to find records in genres other than rock. It must qualify as a participant in the experience and entertainment economies. Better yet, it is the kind of business that can prosper in a retail location that has not yet taken off.

Dusty Groove actually launched from Hyde Park in the late 1990s, selling records over the internet from a back alley office. When they were ready to open a retail outlet, Hyde Park was too constrictive. “The University controlled the neighborhood, it shut down a lot of commercial space, so rents were very high there.”

Wojcik says when they went to Wicker Park, looking for space, the Wicker Park landlords were hedging their bets. “They were sick of renting to bohemians.” They were ready for residential gentrification to attract retailers who’d pay great rents, so they didn’t want to sign long term leases, or if they did, they’d only do it with a steep multiplier for annual increases.

Dusty Groove ended up buying their building at 1120 North Ashland at a time when “only idiots” would open that far from North and Damen. They needed space for their giant inventory, and the shipping and order filling apparatus that is the guts of the store. Wojcik says about 100-200 orders come in every night and staff spend the mornings picking orders. He estimates that even today, 50% of the walk-in traffic are people who were on the web-site that day, or the day before, and have placed something on hold.

Meanwhile, since they arrived, Division Street’s filled in. “Ideally we’d be the store where the boyfriends would shop while their girlfriends are shopping in boutiques on Division,” he says, though he acknowledges it’s still a bit of a walk.

Looking back, Wojcik’s been surprised by how incremental the advance of retail gentrification has been. He says the Milwaukee storefronts were occupied, but they were occupied by older retail that didn’t reflect the neighborhood’s emerging demographic. Landlords were happy to rent to the old businesses as long as they stayed, because they were reliable. But when one would close, the storefront tended to stay vacant, as the landlord hoped for The GAP to come in.

“They were hoping for the rent, but they didn’t have the properties,” Wojcik says now. Milwaukee had a lot of 25 foot storefronts with long cavernous interiors, and they were all individually owned. “The Gap isn’t going to sign a lease with multiple owners.” He says the bohemian stores were willing to put up with lack of loading docks, and having to walk around the corner to access their dumpsters.

Today, quirky boutiques are working out pretty well in Wicker Park’s quaint storefronts. The neighbors might be grateful no one got around to tearing it all down.

In fact, Wojcik thinks residential overdevelopment actually slowed the retail renaissance on Division Street – even though the city required the new 3 story condos install commercial spaces on the ground, the retail condos were too expensive for most small businesses, and large retailers didn’t want to own property.

Eventually, things worked out -- retail offerings caught up with the new demographic. Wojcik says that’s partly because the demographic enjoyed reinforcements, the “Chicago Magazine crowd” came in to shop from Lincoln Park.

South Halsted Street Today
Bridgeport doesn’t necessarily have a lot of big spenders in such close proximity. Though it has other similarities with Wojcik’s description of Wicker Park: the old storefronts, the owners hesitating on the brink of a transition that hasn’t fully declared itself yet. In fact, there are plenty of retail stores open on Halsted Street now, they just don’t match the demographic asserting itself around Morgan Street. But new business that have opened sometimes report the landlords on Halsted haven’t seemed all that eager to rent.

Claire Knipper says when they were shopping for space to open Blue City Cycles in 2008, the landlord’s they approached were divided between those who wouldn’t return their calls and the ones who wanted startling rents. They looked at the former liquor store at 3409 South Halsted. The space was in bad condition, and she says the owner asked for $3,000 a month, triple net.

Loris Basso has had an even more mixed experience. He’s the proprietor of Monster Island Toys. He sells collectible figures from comic books, with a specialty in Godzilla and his cohort – Monster Island is their home in the movies, humanity tried to exile them there. Basso is the only dealer of the Japanese Bandai brand monsters in Illinois.

The retail store is just the icing on his thriving internet business. He is also one of those Halsted Street businesses that has moved from one storefront to the next -- trying to strike the best trade-off between the best rent and the best sales.

Basso says business would be better on the north side, there’s a more spendthrift collector base, they stop at the comic stores on their way home from work. They could stop by his store and buy the action figures in the same trip. But rents in Bridgeport are half, or less than half, what they are on the north side. Would sales be twice as much? As it is, he has customers from out of town who don’t mind making a trip to the shop when they come in to Chicago for other business. He gets a yearly visit from a shop owner in France, who stocks his store with merchandise he carries home in his luggage.

In 2007, Basso had his grand opening at 3407 S. Halsted. The property is owned by the same guys who own the former liquor store Knipper looked at. Tom and Jim Koulouris bought a cluster of storefronts from 3407 to 3419 S. Halsted in 2006.

Basso says he was paying $2,100 a month for 3,000 square feet, but there was also a leak in the ceiling – he had a pail to catch drips in the middle of the floor. He liked the Koulouris’, remembers them as good landlords. He says they went to lengths to repair the roof.

And business was good when Basso first opened. But when business wasn’t as good, and he asked the Koulouris’ to come down in rent, they weren’t willing to do it. Basso says their main business is a prosperous supermarket up north, and they didn’t have to rent the space.

So he moved to 3335 South Halsted – a smaller space for $1,500 a month. Six months after he moved out of the 3407 building, the roof collapsed with such force, it blew the windows out. (The building has since been demolished.)

Then he moved again down to the building that recently housed the Ramova Grill. The space was half the size, and half the rent. The owners, who also own the Ramova Grill, were preparing to retire, they had placed the building on the market, but Tony Dimos, one of the Ramova’s owners, says they were still looking to rent, they might have held on to the building if they’d filled the units with tenants, before they settled on a sale.

Even when they found a buyer, the closing kept getting pushed back. The appraisal was disappointing. Basso says he knows some of the details because an acquaintance was waiting to come in and offer the appraised value in cash if the sale didn’t go through. But then, Dimos says, it did. Happily so – after 50 years of service you hope the owners of the Ramova Grill got a pay out in the end. The new buyer wants to combine all the storefronts for a large Chinese restaurant.

Basso found the experience a little demoralizing. He felt Dimos misled him, because he promised him a lease. Basso took him at his word, fixed up the space and moved in, then Dimos didn’t go through with it. Then in the end, he tried to rush Basso out. He did get all this rent back, though he’s still not sure he’ll go to the effort to relocate the retail store.

Looking out across the street from Monster Island Toys on its last day open, there are 3 vacant storefronts across the street. They suggest a partial picture of Halsted’s fortunes. The Pants Store building was sold once last year, but is back on the market. Aaron Share of Koenig and Strey, who represents it, says it was bought by 2 investors, then one of them backed out, so the other needs to sell. Next to it stands a 3 story new construction condo building, with a first story storefront that’s never been occupied. Basso says the developer has decided to open an office in there himself. And next to that, there is another, older storefront, the windows are shrouded, there’s no visible announcement of any intent to rent, sell or do anything at all – maybe just waiting for the surprise economy to arrive.

Up the street, Jim Koulouris declines to give an asking rent for the former liquor store, he says it would need substantial renovations before he’d make it available. They have invested in the 2 storefronts at 3417 and 3419: one of them houses KAWA, a new sushi restaurant. Koulouris says they are asking for $2,500 a month for the 2,150 square foot space.

Things are looking up, he says. There are new businesses in the condominium building across the street, and they’ve been getting a lot more calls than they were getting 5 years ago. Maybe if things pick up a little more, it’ll be worth Basso’s while to open up a retail store again.