About the time Cheryl Calvin’s youngest child entered first grade, the Lake Highlands Area Improvement Association began surveying residents about what kinds of businesses they wanted to see in our neighborhood. Clothing and gift shops were repeatedly mentioned, and because Calvin had all kinds of newfound time on her hands, she decided to open The Store in Lake Highlands.
She was no rookie. Calvin’s accounting degree definitely helped, and her parents’ business experience didn’t hurt. Her father has owned Lindley Veterinary Clinic for more than 40 years, and during the 12 years that her mother ran a boutique in Salado, Texas, Calvin acted as her buyer.
Still, even as she signed a five-year lease on a newly renovated shopping center at Northwest Highway and Ferndale, Calvin knew the odds were stacked against her.
“There are not a lot of mom and pop stores left. The rent is too high, and having your own store is time-consuming,” she says. “So you have to love it.”
In a city where large corporations and chains keep springing up and squeezing out the little guys, it takes courage to open an independent business and tremendous effort to keep it open. Lake Highlands residents are practically begging for more retail stores to move into our neighborhood, and we’re quick to pledge our loyalty to mom and pop shops. Yet we’re home to relatively few, and some independent business owners wonder if that’s because Lake Highlanders are more supportive in word than in deed.
Despite this, many small business owners feel Lake Highlands is a good place to hang their hats, and whether they opened last year or 25 years ago, they’re figuring out how to relish the ups and weather the downs.
It was different world when Mark Thomi and his parents opened AAA Vacuum Co. in 1981. His father had been a regional sales representative for Eureka throughout the ’60s and ’70s, and at that time, there was money to be made on service and repairs. But with the onset of mega-discount stores, where you can grab a vacuum cleaner between visiting the gardening and toiletry aisles, Thomi says his store at Walnut Hill and Audelia has gradually lost business.
It’s not that his prices aren’t competitive; Thomi says both his vacuums and his filters are much less expensive than comparable ones at discount stores. But people want convenience, he says.
“My biggest competitor is the masses — your Wal-Marts, your Targets your Sam’s Clubs — and think about how many we have within five miles of here. They do 97 percent of the market,” Thomi says. “People walk down the aisle and ‘oh, that one looks great, and ours isn’t working worth a hoot,’ and just buy it.”
Then when it breaks down, he says, they head out and buy a new one instead of coming to him for repairs. The change in the market caused Thomi to completely rethink the way he conducts business.
Bob and Janie Scarbrough, owners of Abrams Royal Pharmacy, have a similar story. They opened their first pharmacy more than three decades ago, when independent pharmacies were common. But as grocery and discount stores entered the market, independent pharmacies began closing down because they couldn’t compete with the large chains’ buying power, and now only a handful of them remain in Dallas.
The reason Abrams Royal is one of them, Janie Scarbrough says, is because of its unique practices. It’s a compounding pharmacy with 80 to 85 percent of medications made on site for patients with special needs. The pharmacists can, for example, put an active ingredient into a lollipop for a young child, or mix it into a cream or lozenge for an elderly person who has trouble swallowing pills. An emphasis on health supplements and overall wellness consultations also has helped, but the most important factor, she says, has been the pharmacy’s personalized customer service.
“The first patients who came to us when we first opened are still with us. The wonderful thing about a small pharmacy is that we know their pets’ names and all their children’s names — they’ve grown up with us,” says Janie Scarbrough.
That’s why it doesn’t bother the Scarbrough family that a CVS and a Walgreens are located right down the street, she adds. They cater to the masses, focusing on filling a certain number of prescriptions a day. Abrams Royal Pharmacy, on the other hand, focuses only on the people who need its services.
“And fortunately, we’ve been very lucky that we grow every year,” Scarbrough says. “We’re not thinking we’ll ever be as large as big chains, and we really don’t want to be. We know there’s a certain group of people we need to take care of, and that’s the place for us.”
Plenty of neighbors are included in the pharmacy’s customer base, but because of its specialized services, Scarbrough says it attracts customers from throughout the area and even the country, so it doesn’t have to rely on neighborhood residents.
Thomi also has been able to expand his market beyond our neighborhood. A few years ago he opened a website, aaavacs.com, and now two-thirds of his business is conducted online. In 2005, he was the biggest seller of high-end Dyson vacuum cleaners in the country.
“I couldn’t buy enough,” Thomi says.
His price on the chic European vacuum is the best around, but what frustrates Thomi is that very few people in our neighborhood know this. He grew up here and says he couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, but it has been hard on his business. The only thing keeping him alive is the Internet, he says.
“The struggle is when I’m driving down the street, and I see a brand new vacuum sitting outside on someone’s curb, and they don’t know what I do here. If I had 100 percent support from everybody here who needed to buy paper bags, filters and vacuums, we would just be swamped,” Thomi says.
He does wonder if business from neighbors would improve if he updated and remodeled his shop, which looks like it hasn’t changed much since the early ’80s. But that would be difficult, Thomi says, because banks are reluctant to fund loans to tenants.
That’s one of the factors that led Barley Vogel to Lake Highlands. As director of the Lakewood Arts Academy, she originally leased a building in the Lakewood Shopping Center at Abrams and Gaston, where the rent had climbed too high for her to afford. The academy opened in 1992, and by 2005, it was time to make an investment, Vogel says.
She looked at retail properties throughout Lakewood before coming face to face with an old Whataburger restaurant tucked away on Shoreview. At the time, it was an African Baptist church, and Vogel fell in love with the unique structure. Her only concern was that the struggling arts center would lose its Lakewood customer base, but she learned quickly that she had worried over nothing.
“I never thought about moving to Lake Highlands, but it was a complete act of God that we ended up in the perfect place for us,” Vogel says. “I am so excited by the welcome that we had from the neighbors, and I feel so stupid because it’s, ‘Oh yeah, all the kids live over here.’ Most of our clients drove to Lakewood because there are fewer kids in Lakewood.”
The name changed to Studio Arts Dallas, and an architect helped Vogel gut and redesign the building to make it conducive for art classes. The studio isn’t located along a regularly traveled road, but it’s a “kidglomerate,” she says, with the KC pool across the street and White Rock Skate Center next door.
The move has been difficult on Vogel’s pocketbook, she says, and attracting business has been a challenge since 9/11, when people stopped spending money on extras. It has been years of “watching the wallet and finding as many money saving options as we can,” she says. But she says she’s not in it to make lots of money.
“You don’t get paid much to do this. I realized it was the only thing I really wanted to do, and I was also good at it. Passion is definitely the reason why small business owners do what they do. I can’t imagine another reason,” Vogel says. “I know the kids who come here get exactly what they need, so I’m willing to stay in for the long haul.”
Calvin can empathize with being driven by passion. She picks out every piece of clothing that hangs on her racks and every gift item on her shelves, and loves the feedback from customers.
“When people come in and say, ‘I love your store — I love everything in it,’ that’s just an ego trip. I’ll just confess it,” Calvin says. “It’s fun to be good at something that you’re complimented on.”
The best surprise about opening her own business, Calvin says, has been the number of people who came in as customers and whom she now counts as friends. She still struggles to balance her store and her family, and of course, competition is always a factor. Calvin mostly welcomes it, and sounded almost sorry that two other neighborhood boutiques — The Accessory Market and The Collection — closed down within the past year. But her biggest competition is where people choose to spend their time, and because The Store is a destination location, which people visit only intentionally, she has to contend with places such as NorthPark Center and Target, “which gets cuter and cuter stuff,” she says.
It’s not enough to deter her, however. If Lake Highlands residents didn’t shop with her, Calvin says she wouldn’t be able to stay open. But neighbors have proven themselves to be loyal customers, and she has found that she can rely on them.
So much so, in fact, that she just signed another five-year-lease.