ShopTalk

How 3 Independence Blvd. businesses plan to survive road work

A sign reminds motorists on Independence Boulevard that the Tandy Leather store is still open. Construction has hurt some businesses in the area, threatening profits and cutting down walk-in customer traffic.
A sign reminds motorists on Independence Boulevard that the Tandy Leather store is still open. Construction has hurt some businesses in the area, threatening profits and cutting down walk-in customer traffic. jmcfadden@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte cigar shop owner Darryl Lee feels he has three options left: Go out of business. File for bankruptcy. Or both.

Paul Williams, who sells lingerie, bikinis and belly rings from a blighted shopping plaza, depends on referrals and regulars – most of them exotic dancers or out-of-town visitors – to keep his boutique open.

And Joshua Harris, manager of an 8-year-old leather franchise, hopes new signs will help boost sales before his corporate bosses move the shop elsewhere.

All three businessmen are struggling to cope with Independence Boulevard – an expansive expressway that connects east Charlotte with Matthews and has been under construction in some form or another since 1990.

The road work has curtailed business in the area – resulting in some stores moving away or closing down. The latest phase of construction, a $51 million project that involves widening the expressway and converting two intersections at Sharon Amity and Idlewild roads into interchanges, won’t be done until fall 2016.

Till then, here’s how three businesses plan to survive:

Close, but no cigar

Lee, 55, is placing his hopes in a $50,000 loan he doesn’t have yet. He needs the money to replenish a depleting inventory, he said, but none of the banks he’s gone to will lend.

“Now I’m coming up with a business plan … based on the fact that I’m starting from scratch,” he said.

For six years, he’s run Cigars Central at the Coliseum Shopping Center on East Independence Boulevard. When he first opened, he said the plaza seemed promising for a retailer hoping to grab travelers coming in and out of the city.

Not anymore. Direct access to his shop is blocked by construction containers – a deterrent for walk-in customers, he said.

“That was almost like the nail in the coffin,” he said. “Business has dropped to almost nil.”

Lee estimates he has lost 90 percent of his business in the last three years. He’s sold personal possessions to keep the store afloat. He’ll likely file for bankruptcy to keep his Plaza Midwood home, Lee said, and he’s mulling over whether he should move his shop, close it or find another job.

“I haven’t gotten a paycheck in two years,” he said.

He uses Facebook to keep in touch with customers. On Jan. 17, Lee posted: “We are still here. Stop by and have a smoke with us.” A day later, he wrote, “The doors are still open.”

He doesn’t know how long it will stay that way. The shopping center – a mostly vacant eyesore – “looks scary,” he said.

“It’s not an inviting look,” Lee said. “At first, we could call ourselves a little diamond in the rough, but that’s not going to help us anymore.”

Complex issues

Developers have made overtures in the past to buy the shopping center and restore it. None of those plans have panned out.

Most recently, Topgolf International said it was considering the property, among several others in the Charlotte-area, for a golf entertainment facility. No definitive decisions have been made, Topgolf spokesman Jason Evans said.

“The site is no more likely than several others,” he said.

That news is same-old, same-old for Paul Williams, 59, who bought exotic boutique Earth Angel 15 years ago from its previous owner. He’s also located in the Coliseum Shopping Center.

He said he’s lost about 20 percent of his business, he’s the store’s sole employee and his clientele has changed. No longer do people he dubs “tourists” walk into the shop out of curiosity. Most people who walk in now know what they want, he said, like the gray-haired man who purchased an all-black bustier and the woman who stopped by looking for low-heeled shoes on a recent Monday. Those kinds of regulars, he said, spread the word about his store.

There are other advantages, he said:

▪ The bulk of his business comes from people outside of Charlotte. Customers will drive to his store from all over the Carolinas because his shop is considered a “destination,” he said. He doesn’t sell his inventory online, so customers don’t worry about purchasing unfitted clothes.

▪ He has a sign – a really big sign. It faces the expressway and reads: “Yes, we’re still open.” Williams bought it about six years ago at the suggestion of an employee. It was a joke. “Yeah, I think to some degree” it works, he said.

Waiting for corporate

Outside his store window, Joshua Harris, manager of Tandy Leather in another Independence shopping center, sees orange cones and bumper-to-bumper traffic. When customers call him trying to find the store, he steers them away from the expressway and gives them directions that take longer and involve U-turns.

Not everyone’s willing to make the trek. “The customers say it’s too much going on,” he said. “We don’t have a profit. We’ve got (to make) a lot of sales to make a comeback.”

Harris, 32, has some ideas to turn things around, such as a new store sign closer to the road. But it won’t happen without approval from his corporate bosses, whom Harris suspects might consider moving the store. Tandy Leather is a Texas-based leather wholesale distributor with 82 retail stores nationwide.

“I wouldn’t mind being in Matthews a little bit,” he said. “There are more things out there.”

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