The Might of Micro Retail
Small business owner Kristina Thelan had long fantasized about managing a store as a part of an urban renewal project. Since moving to Ithaca in 2009, she’d operated an upcycled furniture business, Funky Fresh, with fluctuating success at various locations. When she got wind of a new micro retail space opening in downtown Ithaca, she knew she had to be a part of it.
The space, now known as Press Bay Alley, was the creative dream of John Guttridge, owner of Brightworks Computer Consulting. In 2012, along with his business partner, David Kuckuk, Guttridge bought the Ithaca Journal property. It consisted of several buildings and a parking lot, all located a block from the Ithaca Commons. The main building housed the Ithaca Journal offices, as well as Guttridge’s business. The other buildings sat empty. “When we bought it,” says Guttridge, “[the Market Bay building] was an ugly building, very utilitarian, with coil doors, covered in ivy. It was lost in the bushes.”
The blank slate allowed Guttridge to bring his own vision. From the start, he wanted to create accessible, affordable and appealing storefronts where small businesses could thrive. Guttridge knew that micro retail spaces offer manageable opportunities. With limited square footage and lower rents, owners can try things that might be a little more creative and risky.
Guttridge sought to attract innovative thinkers, so he participated in the Race for Space, a competition sponsored by the Downtown Ithaca Alliance in 2012. The competition sought creative business proposals, offering two winners one year of free rent at a downtown Ithaca location. Darlynne Overbaugh, owner of Life’s So Sweet Chocolates, presented one of the winning proposals. In fall of that year, she set up her chocolate shop in the south side of Guttridge’s refurbished warehouse, with windows overlooking busy Green Street.
By summer of 2013, renovations on the Market Bay building were underway. Gone were the storage locker doors, the overgrown ivy and the pothole-filled asphalt. The overhaul transformed the space into a bright, clean and modern retail establishment, housing six 350 square-foot glass-fronted bays.
Funky Fresh owner Kristina Thelan consulted with Guttridge about procuring one of the bays. But with a furniture business that prided itself on upcycling large cabinets, desks and dining room sets, the small space posed a conundrum. “We tried to think of all sorts of crazy ways to make it work,” Thelan says. “For example, putting the furniture in the basement, and only having a few items up here … but nothing made sense with [the space] being so small, and our inventory being so gigantic.” Thelan resigned herself to the fact that her business would not work in the Market Bay building.
When the redesigned Market Bay building opened for renters in 2014, Boxy Bikes signed on for one of the bays. Boxy Bikes, owned by Laurence Clarkberg, offers custom electric bikes for sale or rent. Seeing that a bike seller could fit into the small location, the allure of the alley kept pulling on Thelan. Eventually, when her family circumstances changed, Thelan took the risk. She closed Funky Fresh and downsized from small business to micro business. She went back to her creative roots – handmade goods – and opened Amuse: Modern Cottage Industry. Amuse is a kind of “Etsy-in-a-shop,” where Thelan offers a wide range of hand-crafted items, from scarves to soaps to baby clothes, created by individual makers throughout New York State and across the country.
In an age when the click of a mouse allows people to buy anything, at any time of day or night from anywhere in the world, brick and mortar businesses are changing. But small is not new. Thelan rightly notes that commerce was once a slower, localized, more people-focused endeavor than it currently is. It’s this thoughtful consumerism that the shopkeepers in Press Bay Alley aim for. “It’s quality instead of quantity,” Thelan says. “It’s being thoughtful about what you bring home, thinking about where it came from, who made it and why they made it … We all believe in these things and we practice them every day.”
Through the end of 2014 and into 2015, more thoughtful and unique businesses took up residence in the Alley, including the Ithaca Generator, the Finger Lakes Meat Locker, and Bramble: Community Herbalism. Most recently, Circus Culture circus school and Ithaca Press Café moved into the final open spaces in the buildings.
If you build it
One challenge Press Bay Alley shopkeepers have faced throughout these first two years is getting on the map. Because the Alley is so new and has minimal view from cars passing on Green Street, it’s easy for drivers to zip past without noticing it. Many locals remain unaware of its existence.
Christopher Cowan, one of the owners of Ithaca Press Café echoes this challenge. Cowan didn’t even know the Alley had been renovated “until I walked by during a Community Supported Agriculture pickup and saw all these people here,” Cowan says. “I thought the Alley was pretty neat.” He got involved and, with his business partner, founded the Press Café shortly thereafter. As Press Café’s roots grow deeper into the neighborhood, Cowan notes that he sees more regulars stopping in for their warm drinks.
Thelan, too, has become comfortable in the Alley. “The proportion of it is right,” she says. “It’s just big enough to hold events, people and vendors, but it’s also small enough that you don’t feel uncomfortable.” And hold events it does. There are regular fundraisers, farmer’s markets and art exhibits. Word is getting around.
Halloween 2015 may have finally put the Alley firmly on the map. On that holiday weekend, shopkeepers transformed Press Bay Alley into Diagon Alley, the famed and quirky shopping promenade of Harry Potter’s wizarding world. Witches, wizards, werewolves and ghouls descended by the thousands. The line to buy a butterbeer at Life’s So Sweet wound around the block. Amuse sold out of handmade wooden wands in the first few hours. And Guttridge hosted a lively game of quidditch in his parking lot. Guttridge estimates about 10,000 people came through the Alley. The Press Bay Alley community is already planning for next year.
John Guttridge is delighted that what was once a simple idea in his head has come to fruition. But the true success of his vision is in the burgeoning community. “We can build a building, which is not an insignificant effort,” Guttridge says, “but it wouldn’t be what it is without the community of shopkeepers and customers and food trucks and everyone else … coming together and enjoying it.”
The same sentiment holds true for Thelan. The business community she’s found in Press Bay Alley is the one she always wished for. With so many inspired minds playing off each other, sharing ideas and opening their doors to new ventures in such a compact environment, the results are bound to be exciting. Throughout her career in business, Thelan has learned that small can indeed be very big. “That’s always been the message of urban renewal,” she says, “even something small can reach so far.”
Check Out These 8 Micro Retailers in the Market Bay Building
Amuse: Modern Cottage Industry connects shoppers with modern makers. Amuse is a woman-owned business offering vibrant gifts and goods, made by hand in the USA, and all under $50. ithacaisamusing.com
Boxy Bikes helps people help the environment by biking more. They offer everything from folding e-bikes to family transportation cargo bikes. boxybikes.com
Bramble: Community Herbalism is a group of four Ithaca-based herbalists who believe that a sustainable and healthy community begins with access to sustainable, local medicine. They offer bulk herbs and spices, medicine-making supplies and locally hand-crafted products. brambleithaca.com
Circus Culture believes in dedicated play, creative physicality and inclusive community. They invite individuals and groups to engage with circus as an art form and life tool through classes, workshops, performances, parties, camps and more. circusculture.org
Ithaca Generator provides public access to 21st century tools and technologies like 3D printers, laser cutters and microcontrollers. They aim to transform the public’s conception of themselves from passive consumers to active designers, inventors and innovators. ithacagenerator.org
The Ithaca Meat Locker is a part of the Finger Lakes Meat Project and provides inexpensive, shared freezer space for people to store bulk meat purchases. The Project is designed to increase sales of locally-raised meats in a nine-county region and beyond. fingerlakesmeatproject.com/ithacameatlocker
Life’s So Sweet Chocolates features fair-trade, hand-crafted artisan chocolates, retro candies, craft sodas, ice cream, gifts and more. lifessosweet.com
Press Café brews espresso drinks, coffees, and beautiful herbal teas blended by their neighbors at Bramble. They’ve created a coffee experience with a focus on excellence. facebook.com/ithacapress
story and photos by Amanda K. Jaros