That Special Niche

Aaron Chester said that he would be bored if he lived in a town with only one coffee shop. Eugene, including the Jefferson Westside neighborhood, possesses not only more than one coffee shop, but other independent stores that have their own particular place.

Eugene has been described as a place where everyone follows their own path, where goes to the beat of their own drum. If there were a town that could embody the essence of being a “rebel”, this would be that town. That is why it is next to impossible to carve out a spot in this burg that a person can call their own. Chester, the owner of Perk Coffee & Espresso on Willamette Street, which is located on the edge of the Jefferson Westside neighborhood, said it best, saying that you have to accept Eugene, not the other way around. It is by accepting Eugene that these small, independent businesses have been able to grow and thrive in neighborhoods like Jefferson Westside.

Rest assured, there are struggles for small businesses in Jefferson Westside. In a community that is mostly residential, it’s hard to impede on that seclusion and not have people be angry with you. However, if you rub the people the right way, they can become your biggest supporters. Each person working in a small business says that even though they do get business from people happening by, they have a core group that has been with them for a while.

“We have a lot of regular customers,” says Kaj Kaldahl, part owner of Whirled Pies, a pizza place on the corner of 11th Avenue and Monroe Street. “They are the backbone of our business.”

Whirled Pies, which could be described as one of those hole-in-the-wall restaurants, has

Whirled Pies, a pizza place on the corner of 11th Avenue and Monroe Street

uncovered its niche in the neighborhood. After being the Monroe St. Café for the past 7 years, Whirled Pies opened its doors about 6 months ago, according to another one of the owners, Eowyn Bondurant. The owners have also realized that in order to get support from the area, they have to give support as well. Besides featuring local produce, meats, and beverages, they also support the local music scene. They are currently holding a raffle for a ticket to the Black Sheep Music and Arts Festival, which takes place just up the road in Tidewater, Ore.

Some places may not have as obvious a support group, but it is still there. Over at the 13th Avenue Market, a convenience store that has been in Jefferson Westside since the 1960s, is where Jacob works. Declining to give a last name for personal reasons, he said that he likes working for an independent business.

“I have worked for a couple of corporations, and this is the best job I have had hands down,” says Jacob.

Chandler Jorda, another cashier at the Market, has been working there for around 12 year, and enjoys making his own decisions while working there.

“I enjoy working here,” says Jorda. “It’s especially nice because no one is breathing down your neck.”

13th Avenue Market, a convenience store on the corner of 13th Avenue and Lawrence Street

While they both admit that some of the customers that come in are strangers, they say that the core business at the Market is its regulars. The small business community relies on people coming back, so it pays to be nice. There is an obvious difference as well. For instance, there are the employees of different gas stations around Eugene. As long as they show up to work and are tolerable, they will more than likely get paid. The same is not true with the small business owners and employees in the area. They come in with a smile on their face, knowing that they need returning customers in order to survive. It’s even harder if they want to expand.

Aaron Chester was lucky in that respect. Chester and his wife Mitra began their small business ownership in Eugene by gaining ownership of Deluxe, a clothing store that caters to those who enjoy the Indie style, from Dagua Nelson in 2006. The success they achieved allowed them to open another clothing store, Kitsch, in the Downtown area in 2007, as well as Perk in the more recent years. And much of the success that Chester has achieved, at least where Perk is concerned, is by word of mouth.

“I don’t advertise,” says Chester in a straightforward sort of way. “I completely depend on word of mouth.”

His emphasis on “completely” also shows how dangerous relying on word of mouth is. If someone doesn’t like how he prepares the food and drink he sells, or is discomforted by his words or actions, they may not say good things about him and his businesses. That type of word of mouth can be detrimental to his business and harmful to its longevity.

The reliance on regulars goes both ways as well. People go back to small businesses because of their friendly attitude and the specialty of its wares. If that business doesn’t receive enough support, it could go under, leaving its loyal patrons without a place to fill that hole within them. Small businesses may fill a niche in the community, but they also fill a niche in each person who visits, whether it is once or all the time.

There are the independent businesses, however, that go into business with a certain

The Redoux Parlor, part of the shopping mall on the corner of Blair Boulevard and Monroe Street

amount of technological knowledge. While Chester’s clothing stores Deluxe and Kitsch have a shared website, Perk doesn’t possess one. The Redoux Parlor, a men’s and women’s resale & local designer goods clothing store located near the corner of Blair Boulevard and Monroe Street, which has been in operation for around 4 years, has its own website. Owned by Laura Lee Laroux, the Parlor’s website not only shows what’s available in the store and the prices for certain alterations, but also an events calendar and what local publications the store has been featured in. Laroux believes that independent businesses are imperative to the community, saying that locally spent dollars help support other local businesses with similar business plans, as most of the ones in Jefferson Westside, as well as Eugene, feature and sell local goods in their stores.

“I wish we could educate people on where their money goes,” she says. “Times are tight, and we encourage people to watch where they spend their money.”

The local residents seem to agree with Laroux, at least according to Vince Loving. A resident since 1976, and graduate of the University of Oregon’s teaching program, Loving agrees that by purchasing from local goods from local, independent businesses, we keep their profits in the community when they purchase local goods. He also appreciates how those businesses act, saying it’s their attitude, congeniality and familiarity that he enjoys

Vince Loving in a park in the Jefferson Westside neighborhood

the most and keeps him coming back.

“I would much rather support the mom and pop stores than any other,” says Loving. “I find that it’s better quality, and in the long run more cost effective.”

The struggles of the independent businessman will always be present. Aaron Chester is always looking for new ways to attract customers to his stores. Kaj Kaldahl is looking to expand his business, but is having a little trouble with the hiring process.

“Its hard to find people who are dedicated to maintaining the consistency that we have built here,” says Kaldahl.

So far it has worked, hiring two members of his family. It looks like small businesses are here to stay in the Jefferson Westside, and will continue to fill that special niche, not only in Jefferson Westside and the city of Eugene, but in the hearts and minds of its people as well.

Sidebar #1: Independent Communication

The business world is often described as a “dog eat dog world”, and that sometimes you have to play dirty in order to get ahead.

Not so with the independent businesses in the Jefferson Westside neighborhood. One

Perk Espresso & Coffee, located near the corner of 13th Avenue and Willamette Street

couple that exemplifies that is Aaron and Mitra Chester, the owners of two clothing stores and a café in Eugene. Although none of their respective enterprises are in Jefferson Westside, they couple does live there. Asked about what he likes about Eugene, Chester says he is impressed with the communities that are here, and in his own way he adds to that sense of community.

“My wife and I both chose to be non-competitive when it comes to business,” says Chester.

That sense of community becomes apparent when talking to Laura Lee Laroux. Most businesses have some sort of music playing when a person enters, and The Redoux Parlor, a clothing store that Laroux owns, is no exception. On one particular day the songs from “The Chuck Berry Anthology” album come up over the speakers. Upon receiving a compliment for her choice in music, Laroux says that she got this music from none other than Aaron Chester. That communication has its drawbacks as well.

The hanging sign outside The Redoux Parlor

“I often talk to local businesses that are going under, and they often try to unload their unsold merchandise on me,” says Laroux. “It’s especially difficult to do so when we are overstocked with our own goods.”

There are pros and cons with every relationship. Having the small business owners in the neighborhood in contact is often good, allowing them to help each other out. Those relationships can be strained, however, when a business fails. It is important to keep independent businesses alive in the neighborhood not only to keep that communication alive, but also to make it stronger.

Sidebar #2: Many Faces, One Location

It is understandable when a business must move out of a location due to failing or changing locations. It’s when one location gets reused that makes a person smile.

There are many instances when a storefront or shop has closed down and it stays empty with naught but a “For Lease” sign on the front. Though it does surprise and excite when construction begins on that place, it is often still remembered as having sat for a long time with no purpose. The building on the corner of 11th Avenue and Monroe Street has been at least three different businesses in the past 8 years, and some in the Jefferson Westside neighborhood haven’t even noticed.

“Before Whirled Pies, it was Monroe Street Café for 7 years,” says Eowyn Bondurant, a part owner of the restaurant that current occupies the space, Whirled Pies. “And before that, it was Cornucopia before it moved to its 17th Avenue and Lincoln Street.”

Pies, which is run by Bondurant, Kaj Kaldahl, and Laurel Bui, opened almost 6 months ago, and has since been featured in the Oregon Daily Emerald. Kaldahl, who is a graduate of the University of Oregon, was the driving force behind the location choice. After working for New Frontier Market on West 8th Avenue and Van Buren Street, he felt that this would be a better location than that of something in West Eugene. With a liquor license and great pizza deals, Whirled Pies looks to become a prime hangout for people this summer.

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