Main Street exodus

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By The Staff

It’s part of the natural ebb and flow of Main Street. Even if companies know they are going under, they try to hang on through Christmas to clear out inventory then close shop in January or February.

But this year has more ebb than normal. A walk down La Grange’s Rockwellian Main Street reveals a more Dickensian appearance than last year with four empty business fronts and one with a “store closing sale” sign.

In July, Sue’s Emporium closed. Then, Jan. 15, the owners of Norma Jean’s Trackside restaurant filed for bankruptcy in U.S. District court to protect the owners from creditors. Kaliopies boutique is closing, and Three Peas in a Pod antique shop has launched a going-out-of- business sale.

Jennifer’s Gift Shop is changing owners and reopening as Grandeur Station next to Dizzy Dave’s on the corner of Main and Ky. 53.

Not all of it can be attributed to that big bad boogeyman known as the recession — for instance, Sue’s Emporium closed due to personal issues unrelated to the economy, fellow Main Street merchant Karen Eldridge said. And as a small business owner she understands the feeling that sometimes the amount of work that goes into singlehandedly running a business sometimes isn’t worth it, even with a still-profitable enterprise, which may have contributed to some of the other vacancies.

But a sluggish economy certainly doesn’t help, she said.

Eldridge, who has owned Karen’s Book Barn through 10 years of ebb and flow said this year is worse than normal. She said it was a blow to hear her neighbors at Three Peas in a Pod — a fixture on the street for 15 years — are leaving at the end of February.

Co-owner Barbara Taylor simply said, “It’s time.”

Norma Jean Burley, for more than three years the eponymous owner of the restaurant, maintained the tradition of Kaelin’s Trackside with Southern comfort food like fried chicken and green beans. She also branched into such Cuban staples as plantains, black beans and chicken ropa vieja. 

Her fault wasn’t a lack of marketing. Savvy in public relations, she attracted news coverage through promotions such as guest chefs, paintings in her windows or Cinco De Mayo celebrations on the courthouse lawn. She also achieved free signage by parking a van at the corner of Main Street and Ky. 53 with a sign pointing her direction.

Burley could not be reached for comment. The restaurant’s phone line has been disconnected.

Kaliopie’s was partially a victim of an “invisible wall” that separates businesses directly on Main Street from those barely off the side, Discover Downtown La Grange Director Barbara Manley Edds said. Although the boutique clothing and gift store faced Main Street on the second level, the entrance was around the side.

Norma Jean’s is also on the less trafficked portion of Main Street. Edds said Discover Downtown La Grange has tried to help promote those businesses on the other side of the invisible wall, including painting Sasquatch-looking yellow footprints from the main district out to places like Norma Jean’s and Blooms.

Edds said the news isn’t all doom and gloom. Although some downtown businesses have closed and others are struggling, some are breaking even and others are even doing better than normal, she said.

Many business owners reported better than expected Christmas sales, she said.

And some of those empty buildings won’t be that way long. Edds said a couple businesses are already lined up to go into the building of Three Peas in a Pod, and she is actively recruiting tenants for the other buildings.

Right now may not be the most opportune time to start a business, though, Eldridge said.

She said while those buildings remain vacant, it affects the appearance and mood of the town. The street has usually been above 90 percent occupied, she said, contributing to a vibrant feeling.

Edds said many of the business owners are positive about the future of Main Street.

Eldridge, for one, said her business is not closing any time soon. However, she said the economy has changed the dynamics of her business. While the “Twilight” series has continued to sell out, starting in mid-summer she noticed more people interested in her used selections instead of new. And more people are calling around to find the best price, she said.

In an economy where consumers are wary, she said she is in a good position, considering her large inventory of used books sells at a fraction of the price of new books.

Having two income streams also helps. A stream of regulars comes by for their daily caffeine fix at the coffee bar. 

She is not the only merchant with other income streams. A Treasured Child sells off its Web site. The Red Pepper, Delizie Italiane and other restaurants cater — as did Norma Jean’s. Dizzy Dave’s East prints clothes for the school system. Blooms has a wide variety of services from floral arrangements to party planning.

Eldridge wants to do more than survive during the recession. She wants to grow. To do so, she plans to court the coffee side of business more by extending business hours from a start time of 9 a.m. to 6 a.m. soon in order to get the pre-work crowd.

Edds said other businesses are considering extending hours beyond the typical 5 p.m. closing time.

“Basically, everybody is thinking of ways to survive tough times,” she said.

E-mail us about this story at: jfoster@oldhamera.com