“Entrepreneurs look to keep it real at the corner of Selby and Snelling”
Most of the recent publicity about the intersection of St. Paul’s Selby and Snelling avenues was about the decision of O’Gara’s owner to not reopen the 79-year-old bar in a new development in the old neighborhood.
And two years ago, a New York institutional buyer acquired 210 upscale apartments built atop the nearby Whole Foods for $87 million.There’s something of an upscaling underway at once-frayed edged Selby and Snelling.
It sure isn’t the likes of nearby Grand Avenue, where chain stores and high rents have replaced a lot of quaint local shops from yesteryear.
In fact, the women who comprise the majority of the 25 small businesses within a strong-arm throw of Snelling and Selby are determined to keep the commercial face of the intersection an edgy, quirky and independent reflection of this middle-class neighborhood.
“I wanted a place for people like me,” said Megan McGuire, 41, who grew up in the neighborhood and launched her Up Six Vintage clothing in 2001. “I wanted a place for people like me. Fun, funky and color on a budget.
“I knew this area and the people. At Up Six, you can get a $9 pair of earrings and pay up to $200 for a [used] wedding dress that would cost $500 to a few thousand new. We dry clean and launder everything.”
These female-owned businesses boast names such as SweatShop Health Club, Flirt Boutique, Brow Chic, Spoils of Wear and Teeny Bee Boutique. They trend small in size. And usually the person serving the customer is the owner or a trusted employee hired by the owner.
“It’s the anti-chain or big-box store experience,” said Kristie Case, owner since 2013 of TeenyBee.
Case, 37, not only retails her self-designed children’s clothing but she distributes her line through dozens of independent retailers.
“The thing that is special is that these businesses are very carefully curated,” Case said. “We know what’s in our store. And we follow each other on social media and we spend time together.
Indeed, each of the three business owners I met with last week are mothers who chose to own their shops, at least in part, because they could bring their babies to work.
Jessica Gerard, the owner of Flirt Boutique since 2008, spent 10 years at a law firm. Pregnant in 2005, she decided her now-teenage daughter was not going to a day care.
“I decided not to go back to the firm,” said Gerard, 48. “I had plans for a shop, but I’d never worked in retail.”
The first venture was an antique and refurbished furniture shop on Grand Avenue.
“That lasted 2.5 years,” Gerard recalled, when she hit the 2008-2009 recession. “I was divorced. I had to do something else. I got rid of the furniture and brought in underwear.”
Gerard also found a neat storefront, for a lot less money, into which she could pack a lot of colorful lingerie at lower price points that also could support her. Furniture tends to be pricey and takes up a lot of space.
“You only need one credenza,” quipped McGuire, who also started with furniture and housewares. “Clothing takes less space. People need it.”
Behind every successful small-business owner is often a smart, empathetic building owner.
Ed Conley, 57, who started doing house and commercial-building repairs in St. Paul in the 1980s, is that man. Informed, of course, by his wife and two daughters.
Conley, who estimates that he and his two bankers have invested a few million bucks to buy and renovate buildings, owns what’s called the “Patina Building,” a 35,000-square foot refurbished structure on the northwest corner that houses female-owned Patina, as well as Flirt and Up Six.
“It’s been a labor of love,” confessed Conley, chuckling. “For me and Trustone Financial and Bridgewater Bank. The property taxes keep going up. Faster than the rents. But I used to be just like these businesswomen. I started out in the 1980s with a dream, $3,000 and a credit card.
“I laugh because I say that I would do this for free. And there have been a few projects that I have done for free the way it worked out. But I like taking a risk on people and buildings that the city has wanted torn down. There were condemnation notices on the Patina building. It’s fun to be part of the positive change at Selby and Snelling.”
Gerard said Conley is a “humble, genuine” and supportive landlord who’s not after the last buck.
“He is proof that doing an honest good job brings you the most success,” Gerard said. “We know their whole family well. His daughter was my daughter’s babysitter for years. We are all in the family over here at Selby and Snelling!”
In fact, at coffee, the business owners used to quip about one day creating a reality TV show called the Corner.
However, unlike the Apprentice and shows of similar ilk, these Selby-Snelling business owners are the real thing.