At Lyn-Lake, retail struggles as restaurants boom

Less walk-by traffic and other factors problematic for local retailers

Nicole Wersal, owner of the home accessories store tidbits boutique, moved in mid-summer from a Lyn-Lake space at 3010 Lyndale Ave. S., to 2833 Hennepin Ave. S. in Uptown.

Wersal, who started her business in Lyn-Lake three years ago, said she moved because the business district has changed - and not for the better. "It's not a shopping district anymore - it's food," she said, noting the area's new restaurants and delis.

Wersal said the loss of other small Lyn-Lake retail businesses was bad for her business and forced the move.

The area has seen a profusion of empty business storefronts - at least 10, according to a rough count taken in late August.

Most recently, Fantasy Gifts, 716 W. Lake St., Cheap and Cheerful, 3017 Lyndale Ave. S., closed in late July and August; and French Antiques, 3016 Lyndale Ave. S., closed in March. (See sidebar below for the Lyn-Lake businesses that have closed or moved in the past three years.)

Gregory Scott, co-president of the Lyn-Lake Association defends the retail climate, despite the vacant space. "We've got some really long-term retailers," he said, referencing Tatters Alternative Clothing, 2928 Lyndale Ave. S. and Penn Cycle, 710 W. Lake St.

"It's a good corner," said Scott, who owns the building housing Theater Antiques, 2934 Lyndale Ave. S. and the Herkimer Pub & Brewery, 2922 Lyndale Ave. S.

Scott has watched the area grow for the past 29 years from his pewter-model manufacturing business above Herkimer.

With the area at a premium rents, Scott said some businesses just don't fit in. "You can't just waltz onto a corner and expect business," he said.

As an example, he referenced The Minneapolis Drum Center/Cultural Center of Minnesota that came and went last year at 3013 Lyndale Ave. S. "Did they not do well because they were at Lyndale and Lake? I don't think so," he said.

Retail's hurting

While defending the area, Scott admits that it's evolving. "We're trying to look at the mix of business we need there. As it becomes a stronger restaurant corner, we'd like to have more nighttime retail," he said.

For Wersal's retail business, the area's intensified restaurant and bar focus was mostly negative.

For example, she said she began to notice public urination and vomit near her storefront. "People were starting to make comments - my customers were," she said, concerned. "The dynamic is definitely different than when we opened."

Jason Engelman, manager of the eye care store and art gallery X-Ray Vision, 3007 Lyndale Ave. S. said he did not experience the bar-related problems. However, he echoed Wersal's concerns about reduced retail traffic.

"There's nothing going on," he said pointing to empty Lyndale sidewalks. Rattling off a list of vacant storefronts in the area, Engelman said, "That's a lot of empty space."

Connie Jerome, one of the three owners at Theater Antiques, a seller's cooperative, said despite a recent rise in business, overall it's has been "really hard." She said, "We're just scraping by."

Jerome, whose store has been at Lyn-Lake for 10 years, said of the area's recent restaurant focus, "I don't think that helps us," adding that other retail stores would be better for her business.

Roger (no last name given) - a vintage clothing buyer at Tatters Alternative Clothing, 2928 Lyndale Ave. S. said Tatters has been at Lyn-Lake for 25 years and he's worked there for 12 years.

He said business hasn't faltered, possibly because Tatter's fills a market niche for affordable vintage clothes. "It's always really busy," Roger said.

Still, he's noticed the difference in area's business mix but says there's an upside. "Even though it's mostly a restaurant crowd, 10 years ago there wasn't much up here - There's so much life here" now, he said.

Probable causes for the retail struggle

Why has there been so much small business flight?

Jerome and Wersal both cite high rents. Wersal said she her rent is one-third lower at her 28th & Hennepin location, where she's getting twice the walk-by traffic.

Scott said changes are inevitable as Lyn-Lake evolves. He cited the restaurant infusion at Lake & Hennepin as another example of how a business mix frequently doesn't stay static. Even the Mall of America evolves, he added. "There's constant turnover there. It's awful hard to blame the mall," he said.

To survive as a Lyn-Lake shop, Scott said because of less walk-by traffic, businesses must be unique to be a customer destination. "Tatters does not survive by pedestrian traffic," he said.

People will go to the mall for anything not unique, Scott said, adding, "the unusual stores do fairly well" at Lyn-Lake.

Pam Hanson, owns such a place: Heavenly Soles at 615 W. Lake St. She said her unusual store - with plastic monkeys, funky purses and shoes galore - is doing well.

Still, even Hanson, whose business is a decade old, said, "it would be nice of there was more retail around."

Other factors hurting local retail aren't Lyn-Lake specific; for example, Jerome cited the changing nature of the antiques business. Many dealers have stopped selling in stores like hers and moved to the Internet, she said.

Meanwhile, Target and Ikea stores have begun to gear home furnishing merchandise towards younger generations - previously a big part of Theater Antiques' business, Jerome noted.

Reviving retail

As for solutions to stabilize retail at Lyn-Lake, business owners say they're too few and far between.

Lyn-Lake Association representatives say no major problems have been brought to the group but acknowledge that most members aren't small-retail-shop owners.

The group, which meets monthly at It's Greek to Me, 626 W. Lake St., has discussed reviving the Lyn-Lake street fair next year.

Some merchants are reluctantly hopeful the event could draw customers - but many take it upon themselves to try and improve business.

X-Ray's Engleman said to draw customers, he started showcasing artists at the store a few years ago. "It's been really, really successful," he said.

Jerome said to fill vacant spaces in her store left by dealers, they've been trying to incorporate consignment merchandise - mostly home furnishings. Whether that will work is still unclear, she said: "The bottom line is, can we make it?"