Small biz owners dig in as hard times take a toll

The recession is beginning to hit local shops according to neighborhood Main Street organizations, though most businesses seem to be holding on as the holiday season begins.

Anecdotal evidence points to a general slowdown in foot traffic, though there has yet to be any rash of store closings.

"I know that the economy is taking its toll," said Evelyn Darling, Fields Corner Main Street program director.

However, Darling counts almost 20 new businesses in her neighborhood since January and only a few closings - some of which were relocations. October saw ribbons cut for a new furniture store, tax service, Vietnamese travel agency and realty firm, and the new 77 Vietnamese restaurant is set to open this month on Dorchester Avenue.

"I don't think we've felt the full effect yet," she said. "People haven't said that business is terrible, but if the economic slowdown continues we might."

Darling is optimistic about the ever-growing Vietnamese community that continues to open new businesses and an up-and-coming restaurant scene.

"I think Fields Corner is starting to become known as a place to go out and eat," she said.

Four Corners Main Street is co-hosting a series of breakfasts for local entrepreneurs in an effort to help local businesses weather the economic storm. At one event on Tuesday this week banking professionals discussed the need for thorough financial management and documentation - both for keeping businesses healthy and to increase chances of getting loans in the tightening market.

After the forum, Earl Ashby, owner of Eash Enterprises Computing Services, said he's been taking a hit on computer sales. His repair jobs have increased, though not enough to cover his sales losses.

"With the economy they're bringing out old systems from the closet to fix," he said, "but it's not even close to making up for the sales."

The Courthouse Convenience store on Washington Street has seen a steady decline in sales as well, according to owner Marc Stallworth. He said his drive and dream of owning his own business are the only things keeping him going.

"We're struggling right now," he said. "The economy is really doing us small business guys in."

Stallworth wants to re-launch his wholesale incense, burning oil, and car spray business to make up for the loss in sales, but needs funding. At one point he was delivering his MO/Scents products to some 80 stores.

Shelly Goehring, executive director of Four Corners Main Street, said marketing broadly is key in this economic climate. She cites the MOD Boston boutique as an example. By creative advertising and partnerships with event promoters the shop is thriving, recently expanded to include a men's department, and will be opening an online store soon.

"It's a mixed bag," Goehring said about the rest of the neighborhood. "Others are feeling the pinch."

St. Mark's Area Main Streets Director Dan Larner agrees. Though he has heard from some struggling businesses, many others are hanging on. Larner has seen more openings than closings.

"I think that we're pretty much holding steady," he said. "Most of the storefronts are getting rented and are not open for long. Overall, people are still investing in this neighborhood."

The new Carruth condo development adjacent to Ashmont Station is one bright spot and contains a new Wainwright Bank and Flat Black Coffee, as well as the Tavolo restaurant.

St. Mark's Area Main Streets is encouraging shopping this week through a contest that picks winners from those who visit selected stores. The grand prize includes theater tickets and a gym membership.

Though Sandra Kennedy, director of Bowdoin-Geneva Main Streets, said she's only seen one business close because of the economy, she has seen an uptick in owners coming to her for help.

"They're usually a little gun-shy, but now it seems like they have no other choice - which is excellent because that's what I'm here for."

Kennedy said she's been assisting owners with securing financial assistance and finding appropriate workshops for help in keeping their businesses afloat.

Zachary Cohen, executive director at Uphams Corner Main Street, said the economy has changed his organization's focus from recruiting to retaining businesses.

"We see businesses here that are struggling," he said. "Rather than try to fill vacancies, we want to help them stay alive."

One example is a scavenger hunt contest scheduled for Dec. 19 and 20 that will award an iPod to the participant who visits the most stores. Sticker "passports" are available at most shops in the neighborhood.

Cohen is also encouraging businesses to save energy costs together through a city program and is beginning a visioning process to paint a picture of what the community wants the neighborhood to be, especially with upcoming changes to the Strand Theatre and the new Kroc Community Center.

Though there have been closings, notably Chef Lee's Soul Food at 549 Columbia Road, Cohen is encouraged by a number of entrepreneurs talking about opening new businesses and others that are succeeding.

"People see Uphams Corner as that next place that's ready to pop," he said. "It's amazing that despite the economy, people still see it moving in the right direction."

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