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May 2001

Many Small Businesses Thrive And

Survive In The Box Store World

By Karen Nakamura

In the current dotcom death throes, Marin's long-time, locally-run businesses are surviving, some just barely...

In 1994, local businesses were in a desperate fight for survival from the onslaught of box merchants, national chain stores and shopping malls. At the time, downtown San Anselmo was withering on the vine with empty storefronts and few customers. The same could be said of downtown San Rafael.

Since that time the two communities have risen to the occasion. Through the insightful team work of city councils, civic activists and downtown merchants associations, the two are not only vibrant and alive, each has a brand new look.

San Anselmo's downtown has retained its quaintness while creating an atmosphere that's even more friendly and welcoming. This truth is evident in the large number of people who stroll San Anselmo Avenue at all times of the week. San Rafael's efforts to provide affordable housing while maintaining good living standards, have been exceptional. Fourth Street has a new fountain, a softer, shaded traffic line and busy shops run by local entrepreneurs. Ultimately, it's the community's support that has allowed businesses in both towns to survive.

Downtown improvement projects were begun by both cities as an attempt to save local, Marin-owned businesses. These small, not terribly profitable businesses came to symbolize small town neighborhoods, desired by all but high-flying developers. The ensuing prosperity of the Clinton years didn't deter either downtown revitalization project. The old adage to fix things up when times are flush was well taken. Present improvements should last awhile even if the country is headed towards a government-encouraged recession.

What's happened to individual long term businesses during this time? Guasco's Foods, a gourmet's comfort-food heaven if there ever was one is closed. The family retired but was bought out by a Bay Area firm, Andronico's. Elan is there but the locally run health food store down Greenfield was bought out by Whole Grains, a Bay Area firm. Willow Street on Fourth in San Rafael has gone through numerous incarnations. Tom Whyte's Bookshop and Oliver's Books in San Anselmo are still open.

Oliver's Books, long a cultural center in Central Marin, has weathered both external pressures from aggressive competition and internal sorrow with the death of its founder several years ago. Greg Giles, speaking for Oliver's, said sales were steady and the store is holding its own against the chains. The current problem, however, has the potential to sink them. The building where they have been located for over 15 years, is up for sale, for the second time in a year, and the price is high. As is too often the case, that may mean rents becoming too steep to sustain a business. To compound the problem, Oliver's doesn't hold a lease and the future is more than a little ambiguous from month to month. But he says, "We're okay. We're fine. We're pulling along."

The Bank Pharmacy in Fairfax is still operating but has cut back on many items not directly related to its pharmaceutical business. Jack's Drugs in San Anselmo is also still afloat. Both pharmacies are getting some support from an aggressive independent pharmacy lobby in Congress which is fighting price fixing by chain stores and the suppliers. Tony Mavrantonis who runs Jack's Drugs in San Anselmo complains, with his typical pointed humor, that he hasn't had time to think of anything but his profit margin and has given up most outside interests. Mavrantonis observes, "I've abandoned my soul for profit. These days, I can't talk about anything but the bottom line. I think I've discovered that's the meaning to life."

In the meantime, various box merchants, such as Gateway store in Novato's Vintage Oaks Shopping Center, are closing stores now that they've run their competitors into the ground. Sutter Health, the controversial holder of Marin General Hospital, is being bombarded with lawsuits and strikes. As they seek to raise their bottom line by not hiring enough nurses and offering fewer services, patients and staff from around the Bay Area are questioning their motives.

If the community continues to support local businesses and if the local circulation of money is maintained, Marin should be able to weather the coming storm.

 

 

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