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Generation Sell

How a new wave of entrepreneurs find success in our crumbled economy

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Stepping into Wlady Daszkiewycz's Shoe Repair is like hopping into Doc's silver DeLorean from Back to the Future and traveling to an era when small shops lined the streets of Cleveland.

Tidy rows of leather shoes, jackets, and purses, and the pungent smell of leather fill the cozy, wood-paneled shop. Wlady, the 85-year-old proprietor, looks up and smiles when a customer comes in — something that happens a bit too rarely these days. He used to have plenty of company, but most of his neighbors have closed up and faded away.

After working as a cobbler for more than half a century, Wlady now runs his repair shop out of a narrow trailer parked in a used-car lot on Lorain Avenue. He used to rent a storefront on West 65th Street, but the owner let it fall into disrepair and the city eventually tore it down. These days, a cheap and modest space is all he needs anyway. A small sign advertises his hours — he's open every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday, it says. (He gave himself license to slack off to three days a week several birthdays ago.)

"When I grew up, I learned to fix things, but now everything is disposable," says Wlady, who emigrated from Austria to Cleveland in 1956 and raised his family in Brooklyn. He used to make ballet and dress shoes by hand, but now he just makes small repairs.

There are, of course, hundreds of Wladys across Greater Cleveland — artisans plying disappearing trades while fighting a rising tide of cheap, disposable goods made overseas. Old-fashioned businesses like the Cane Shop in Old Brooklyn or West Park Mower on Lorain Avenue are but two examples of the dying breed. Yet fortunately, the story of small retailers in Cleveland doesn't end there. In fact, as neighborhoods like downtown, Tremont, Ohio City, Detroit Shoreway, and Collinwood attract more and more residents, a new generation of urban shopkeepers is growing.

Just a few miles away from Wlady's trailer, entrepreneur Danielle DeBoe is humming a different tune about the future of retail. Last summer, emboldened by the success of her four-year-old Ohio City boutique Room Service, DeBoe partnered with clothing designer Sean Bilovecky to open Dredgers Union, a new 4,000-square-foot store on East Fourth Street.

"Local, independent stores offer something different than homogenized, big-box retailers do, and people are increasingly cognizant of that," says DeBoe, whose goal is to reawaken shoppers' appetite for retail in downtown Cleveland, an area that once boasted five major department stores, but saw its last one — Dillard's — close for good in 2001.

DeBoe and Bilovecky have taken a big leap of faith, and they aren't the only ones. In recent years, as revitalized urban areas have attracted artists, young professionals, and empty nesters, a fresh wave of bike shops, boutiques, flower shops, small gyms, vintage specialists, and clothing stores have followed. Historic, older suburbs such as Lakewood and Cleveland Heights have also seen a spate of trendy new stores, often occupying long-dormant space on major thoroughfares like Lee Road and Madison Avenue.

Some experts studying the phenomenon argue that these start-up retailers may be a generational trend: Millennials are more likely to start new businesses than their forebears, they argue. "When I hear from young people who want to get off the careerist treadmill and do something meaningful ... what's really hip is social entrepreneurship," wrote author and book critic William Deresiewicz, in an essay published in The New York Times in November. "Today's ideal social form is not the commune or the movement or even the individual creator as such; it's the small business. Call it Generation Sell."

Those watching the trend in Cleveland say that this new class of retailers is not only capitalizing on urban redevelopment, but also flourishing despite a tough economy.

"New, urban retailers are providing niche market services as neighborhoods like Ohio City reach critical mass," says Eric Wobser, director of Ohio City Inc., a nonprofit community development corporation that has successfully lured new shops to West 25th and Lorain Avenue in the past year. "The ones who are successful become anchors in their own right by appealing to locals who want high-quality services with a personal touch."

"This is the right economy for people to take risks they might otherwise not take," adds Robert Simons, a professor at the Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University who is also the faculty advisor for the school's Certificate Program in Real Estate Development and Finance. "There's a lot of detachment from the formal workplace, and because of gloomy job prospects, there aren't a lot of opportunity costs to being an entrepreneur. The question is, can these businesses grow and survive?"

TAKING THE LEAP

One unifying theme among retailers popping up in Cleveland neighborhoods is that they've each transformed a personal passion into a successful business. By marrying their talents with a market niche that's not being addressed by others, they've been able to launch new stores built on big dreams, spare change, and grit.

Bilovecky and DeBoe started Dredgers Union because they share a passion for clothing design and retail, and wanted to bring unique, high-quality goods back to downtown. A painting on the wall of Dredgers Union aptly sums up the store's appeal. It reads: "Supporting Domestically Produced Values."

"We believe in supporting locally and regionally made goods wherever possible," says Bilovecky, whose private label offers custom, made-to-measure men's suits, denim jeans, and casual, button-down shirts designed in Cleveland and manufactured in the U.S. "Our label retails for less than many other 'made in the U.S.A.' products, which is something that really makes us stand out from other stores across the country."

Chris Sorenson runs Crafty Goodness, a new, 800-square-foot store on Madison Avenue in Lakewood that sells hand-crafted, locally-made jewelry, art, and other goods. She first tested the market through pop-up shows with the Cleveland Craft Coalition, finally launching her store in response to customers' increased interest in buying local and supporting artists. "There isn't another store in Northeast Ohio that's exactly like ours," she says.

Alex Nosse of Joy Machines Bike Shop on West 25th hatched the idea of opening a small, urban bike repair and sales shop while cycling from Cleveland to San Francisco with a friend over the summer of 2010. "It was a light-bulb moment," he says. "I realized how much passion I had for cycling and that I wanted to do something bike-related."

Lisa Dunn of Revive, a fair-trade clothing store with locations on Lee Road in Cleveland Heights and Legacy Village, decided to go into retail five years ago after taking a trip abroad. "While traveling in Guatemala with a human-rights organization, I met a group of women artisans trying to sustain themselves, and their apparel was very creative and unique," she says. "I was struck with a vision and didn't sleep for an entire weekend — I realized I could help these women by opening a fair-trade boutique in Cleveland."

For these independent retailers, however, being successful required more than their passion. They also needed big megaphones to tell their stories.

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