Durham News

Ninth Street merchants seek success through unity

Some of the shops on the east side of Ninth Street on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016. Owners of some of those businesses are working together the market the street as a shopping destination.
Some of the shops on the east side of Ninth Street on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016. Owners of some of those businesses are working together the market the street as a shopping destination. vbridges@newsobserver.com

A new logo and a website. Sidewalk sales. A first-time Halloween event with trick-or-treating, costume contests (for kids and dogs) and a parade.

Ninth Street merchants are rebounding from the Great Recession, online retail competition, and parking challenges with the redevelopment of the Shops at Erwin Mill, a mix of local, chain and franchise businesses, including Harris Teeter and a Panera Bread, in the 13 spaces on the west side of the street. The 2013 development also included a well-lit 348-space parking lot that only Shops at Erwin Mill customers can use.

Some speculated the renovated shopping center, along with the influx of customers with the opening of a nearby hotel and apartments, would price out some of the independent businesses on the east side of the street.

But many are holding their own, say owners of the 40-year-old The Regulator Bookshop, the 34-year-old clothing and accessories shop Vaguely Reminiscent and the 6-year-old record and smoke store Hunky Dory.

Still, some business have struggled, including The Play House Toy Store, and others on both sides of the street have closed their doors.

Business owners who say they are doing well gave a variety of reasons: loyal customers, Duke students visiting the street and a unified front on marketing the street as a shopping destination.

For the latter, they credit, in part, the revitalized Ninth Street Merchants Association led by Daryn O’Shea, owner of computer repair and parts shop The Computer Cellar.

About two years ago, the city started charging a $1 an hour on weekdays in a 45-space lot that used to be free. Many Ninth Street customers refused to pay for parking, and longstanding merchants said the change hurt business. Things got worse when the Shops at Erwin Mill started towing, or threatening to tow, the vehicles of customers visiting shops on the east side of the street.

Initially businesses on the east side of the street considered leasing the lot from the city and making it free, but decided to instead focus on marketing the street as a Durham shopping and eating destination.

“We just needed to make Ninth Street a place for people to come,” said O’Shea.

The result is a new website (http://www.discover9thstreet.com/) that lists businesses on both sides of the street and in surrounding areas, a logo with the words Discover Ninth Street surrounding shops, fall and spring sidewalk sales and other coordinated efforts, like the Halloween event. Association dues are paying for the branding, O’Shea said.

The association is also creating marketing materials to drop off at area hotels and other visitor destinations.

‘Most promising’

Since opening clothing and gift shop Vaguely Reminiscent in 1982, Carol Anderson has seen various versions of the merchants association come and go.

“Out of all the iterations of the Merchants Association, I swear this is the most promising,” she said.

The district’s history dates to the Erwin Cotton Mill, which opened in 1893 and attracted surrounding merchants to meet the workers’ daily needs. The mill closed in 1986 and has since been converted into apartments.

Over the years, Ninth Street became an incubator for small businesses, including Wellspring Grocery, which was bought out by Whole Foods Market, and Ninth Street Bakery, now on East Chapel Hill Street in downtown Durham.

It also became known for its quirky mainstays, such as The Regulator Bookshop and Vaguely Reminiscent, along with other restaurants and shops that have created their own followings. But as downtown and other shopping areas started to bloom, some Ninth Street shop owners said they felt neglected by the city.

Over the last few years business on the street has varied with the economy, the construction and the parking challenges, said Emily Wexler, co-owner of the 15-year-old clothing and accessories boutique Cozy.

The unified effort adds a layer of camaraderie on the street, she said, and the sidewalk sales attract new customers.

“I feel like there is some momentum building on Ninth Street,” said Wexler who just signed a lease for another year. “I am hopeful.”

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges

If you go

What: Halloween Trick or Treat on Ninth Street.

Activities include Dimensions Family School leading a Costume Parade for children. Line up at 2:45 p.m. Parade begins at 3 p.m. Barnes Supply will host a Doggie Costume Contest between 3 and 5 p.m. Dain’s Place will host a family-friendly costume party starting at 3 p.m. The Regulator Bookshop will hold “Scary Stories Storytime” at 4 p.m. Elmo’s Diner will host a Kid’s Costume Contest at 5 p.m. for kids up to 12. Mr. Rainbow the Clown will make balloon creations on the sidewalk at the top of Alley 8.

When: 3 p.m. Monday

Where: Businesses on Ninth Street.

For more information: http://bit.ly/Ninthstreet

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