So said Jean Stapleton in the film “You’ve Got Mail,” which was inexplicably playing back to back, all night last night on the eve of my closing my retail store, Pennaluna.  Watching this movie on the night before the going out of business sale is the retail equivalent of cutting.  “You’re venturing out in the world, armed with nothing,” she continues in the scene.  I don’t know how well-armed I am, but I’ll be well-barricaded behind the two dozen used Christmas trees we dragged over from storage for our sale, not to mention the fifty candle testers to keep me warm at night, forty-two stuffed animals to keep me company, four pounds of Dylan’s Candy Bar gumballs in case I get hungry, one giant cardboard house from Holland I can use as a shelter, and an enormous iron horse I can ride off into the sunset.  I am set for my journey into the new world!

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The Marvelous Middle

October 20, 2011

Up The Valley: The marvelous middle

Have you heard the one about the Main Street shop owner? He was discouraged when another store with similar merchandise opened up next door and put up a huge sign out front reading: “Best Deals.” Then another similar store opened up on his other side, putting up an even larger sign reading: “Lowest Prices.” Our intrepid shopkeeper considered his predicament, then put up the biggest sign of all over his own shop. It read: “Main Entrance.”

Such is the ingenuity and resilience of the Main Street retailer; under siege from competitors, the economy, and the Internet, yet somehow always able to pull a rabbit out of a hat. Of course the shopkeepers in our story would receive a stern scolding from the planning department for illegal signage, but I digress.

For 20 years my store Pennaluna, formerly Murray ’n’ Gibbs and more formerly Tantau, has been a St. Helena retailer. We’ve endured economic downturns, demographic shifts, flooding, 9/11, mouse invasions and a serious 2009 shortage of Abba CDs and chicken purses. We’ve seen Martha Stewart, Shabby Chic, and even Christopher Radko defect to Kmart and Target, and our most thoughtfully selected books piled high on discount tables at Costco. Yet we’ve survived, neither the most expensive store in town nor the cheapest, but staking out a niche in that marvelous middle where most people live and shop.

And while we adore those shoppers with black Amex cards, and appreciate those who can only afford a greeting card, middle-income shoppers have always been the bedrock upon which our business was established and grown. They’ve remained loyal in the face of enormous pressures to abandon us for cheaper, more convenient alternatives. Still, change has escalated over the past year, and I’ve felt like George Clooney at the helm of that boat in “The Perfect Storm,” although rather than bailing water over the side, I’ve been scooping gold bullion into the bow while the ship just sinks faster and deeper.

And so our store is closing, like so many before it. We will expand our website, and perhaps even pop up again in some different future form. But the days of opening our doors 362 days a year, rain or shine, busy or slow, will soon be over. The marvelous middle is disappearing; we all see and feel it in our community and in our country, and this has led to a tectonic shift in retail in America. Yet while the luxury and discount markets and Internet outposts may have their day, I am confident that the small-town retailer will rise again, greeting locals and visitors with a warm “Welcome,” taking time to personally gift-wrap a package or to help with a special order, and serving as a public square where neighbors and friends reconnect.

What will I miss? So many wonderful customers who have treated us like family, sharing a laugh, scouting products, and indulging my particular musical tastes (even during the Tom Jones-Tijuana Brass period). They stop by even now to share memories and provide moral support. I’ll miss my fellow merchants who have been so welcoming, the vendors and artists who have become friends and the extraordinary employees and former owners who have given so much of themselves to the shop.

Pat Thorp-Boyd, leaving a job she’s done brilliantly for two decades, continues to be my greatest source of strength as I shutter the business she once owned. Whatever losses I’ve suffered through my retail adventures, I’ve benefited beyond measure from the kindness of former strangers, and have been forever changed by this experience and by this community.

Many of my friends had the same reaction to the news: “Finally, you can use your brain again, concentrate on your writing and restart your law practice.” I know what they mean: charting the intellectual course rather than worrying about color swatches. But I suspect they underestimate the enormous brain power it takes to operate a small retail business. I used to view small business owners with an emphasis on the word “small,” but now appreciate how they struggle, alone and unsubsidized, suffering the impacts of recessions and regulations more quickly and profoundly than their big-corporate brethren, while having a more direct and immediate positive effect on the economy.

I’ve never experienced anything like the exhilarating, exasperating, and exhausting roller-coaster of owning this retail store. Will I use that experience, and my brain, as a writer and lawyer and business person in the future? You bet. But my heart will always be in St. Helena retail.

(Laura Rafaty is the owner of Pennaluna on Main Street, a resident of St. Helena, a former attorney and Broadway theatrical producer and an author and columnist.)

Double Bubble

October 6, 2011

Up The Valley: Double Bubble

Discussing the impact of climate change with a Planning Commissioner recently, I learned something interesting: climate change is not happening in St. Helena. Well it is, but not much, and not to the extent feared after a 2006 study concluded that the Napa Valley would soon be too warm to produce wine.

This prior study was apparently commissioned by the French, no doubt with nefarious intent and their thumbs on the thermometers, and measured only a few carefully selected hot spots, like the hood of my car in mid-July, and the foreheads of sunbathers sitting by the Meadowood pool in mid-August. So the Napa Valley Vintners rode to the rescue with a more comprehensive study, concluding that average temperatures had only increased by one or two degrees over the past several decades, mostly affecting the night rather than daytime, which is not only good for grapes, but great for those who like to venture out for dinner wearing only a light sweater.

I realize that this is old news to you grapies out there, but it struck me as further evidence of how St. Helena exists in an insulated bubble, climactic and otherwise. Nowhere is this truer than in the office of the Mayor, who reminds me more and more of the Stage Manager in a summer stock production of “Our Town.” There is something comforting about having someone at the helm of our city whom I think I may describe without fear of contradiction or offending as decidedly “old school.” He was kind enough to meet with me recently to discuss my views as a Main Street merchant, and I sincerely appreciated his taking that time. Things were going swimmingly until I mentioned the interest of a group of merchants in attracting stores to our shopping district that might be local-serving while updating our image, like a small department store, an established home furnishings store, or an Apple computer store.

At this suggestion the mayor became a human metronome, repeating “no, no, no” while shaking his head in rhythmic succession. “We will never allow an Apple Store in this town,” he pronounced, although he did suggest that the Council would look favorably on “Joe’s Electronics’ Shop.” I didn’t know how to break it to Hizzoner that Joe had probably been driven out of the electronics business by Amazon and Walmart, and his house seized by the California Board of Equalization after a sales tax audit revealed that the lady he shipped the adapter to in Schenectady owned a second home in Yountville. Mythical Joe was last seen wandering down the beach wearing baggy swim trunks collecting coins with a metal detector.

I realize that luring Apple here wouldn’t be easy, unless we trick them into thinking we are Aspen by coating the streets with shaved coconut, strapping skis to the top of our cars, and wearing furs when they do the site inspection. But the point is that, unlike our national Leader who ran on a platform of Change (whether it has been achieved or not), our local Leaders seemingly embrace a form of “If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It,” namely: “If We Ain’t Broke, Don’t Change It.” Unfortunately, we are broke and getting broker all the time, as our last-place finish in sales tax revenue recently revealed. Even absent recessions, the winter months can leave downtown sidewalks looking as empty as a Nader for President rally. So we must take action, and make choices. We could choose to keep bouncing along in our bubble, pretending that tastes haven’t changed and that mom and pop stores alone are sufficient to sustain a shopping district. Or we can gild our storefronts with glitzy galleries and glittering jewelry stores that threaten the market share of our neighbors’ long-standing businesses, ship purchases out-of-county generating no local tax revenue, and render our Main Street as irrelevant to the lives of locals as a bikini shop to a convent.

Or maybe we should just throw up our hands and sell our downtown to the Walt Disney Company. If our Leaders really want a slice of Americana, let’s let Disney’s Imagineers create a 100-percent artificial old-time Main Street shopping experience, complete with bubble gum-colored buildings, barber shop quartets and hitching posts. We might need to add Ye Olde Sex Shoppe to actually generate some tax revenue, but who cares so long as it appears to be a clean, shiny temple to non-change. Our Leaders don’t shop much downtown, anyway, so who’s to know. And that’s what I call living in a bubble.

(Laura Rafaty is the owner of Pennaluna on Main Street, a resident of St. Helena, a former attorney and Broadway theatrical producer and an author and columnist.)