Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Small Business Series 3: Arcadia and Squeaky Wheel

 In the first two installments of this series, we concentrated on the contributions and quality of small, local entrepreneurs.  One of the themes that continues to emerge is the concern that so many of these small enterprises have for their customers, workers, and communities.  And in that vein, two of the most socially responsible, forward-thinking companies that come to mind are Arcadia and Squeaky Wheel Media....

It was the first Monday of the month, a night when Arcadia regularly sponsors fundraising events for local charities.  This night, their sales and the raffles they sold were helping to support    Trinity Place Shelter, an organization dedicated to helping homeless LGBTQ youth transition from life in a shelter to life as an independent adult.    So, off we went to find this store located at 249 West 23rd Street, just off of 7th Avenue, in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City.  

“Find” was the operative word.  Retail space in New York City is expensive, and small businesses need to find ways to make maximum use of small rental spaces to survive.  We walked past it, even though we were actively looking for it.   

What a shame for all those other New Yorkers or passers-by who might miss Arcadia in their hurry:  this shop is an absolute gem. 

Upon entering, our eyes were treated to an incredible array of gifts, candles, glassware, books, wind chimes, jewelry, and an assortment of gifts that were clearly unique, hand-made, and truly ‘niche’ goods.   It only took me minutes to learn the name of Jay Gurewitsch (store owner and driving force) and his partner Ian Edwards (sustainability & communications specialist at the register).  And what impressed me more than the quality products they supplied, was the philosophy,  caring, and the passion that went into selecting those products. 

The vision for Arcadia grew out of Jay’s experiences in retail environments; “simple is beautiful” was his response to the complicated, difficult, hectic lives many New Yorkers lived.  As a child raised in a modern Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn,  Jay (pictured below) was raised with a deep appreciation of and respect for religion, spirituality, and strongly held personal beliefs. An enormous love of learning and reading colors his approach: he has an in-depth story about every product he carries. He revels in seeking out knowledge of other cultures, religions, and communities, and the broad range of products at Arcadia is a reflection of that search. 

He writes on his website:

“My father’s factory, Star Candle, is a union shop where employees from more than 20 different countries together, frequently generation after generation. It is an American anachronism that is still going strong; where blue collar workers make a decent wage, have health insurance, union membership, a good working environment and produce a reasonably priced product … Watching my father working with his employees, customers and suppliers also taught me some of the most important lessons of my business career; that while the highest ethical conduct may not always pay off financially, it always pays off in far more important ways.”

Like physical manifestations of his father’s employees, the products featured at Arcadia encompass a broad and eclectic cultural stew.  Arcadia focuses as much as possible on fairly traded products made throughout the world, so that their customers’ interest in supporting indigenous populations and their cultures can be achieved. 

What is fascinating about Arcadia is how they reject the standard 'norms:'  they reject mass-produced, standardized corporate products,  but they also reject the jingoist notion that all products must be “American-made” to be worthwhile.  Rather, Arcadia has found a way to work fairly and honestly with small producers in America and around the globe, without regard for political borders. 

 Before leaving that night, we went home with a copper, iron, and wooden bell produced by a couple named Abdul and Fatima, who are members of an artisan cooperative in northwestern India for $24.95, a price we found entirely reasonable, even on our restricted budget.

From recycling packaging to using wind-generated electricity, Arcadia has a vision for a better society – a vision that is embodied in every aspect of their operation.  

This is the kind of business that America, and Americans, need to support.

Arcadia’s emphasis on social responsibility reminded me of another small company I had visited in New York City back in April.   

Update:  In January 2014, Jay announced that the Arcadia storefront would be closing in March 2014.  Some context is important here:  As we all know, 2007 saw the beginning of the deepest recession the US has had since the Great Depression.  Disposable income, production of goods and services, and gross sales – especially in small businesses – all fell.  At the same time, under NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg (2001 – 2013), more than 40%  of Manhattan was rezoned.  During this time, rents on many small mom-and-pop business skyrocketed, with increases of $25,000 per month being common.  Many local restaurants, gift stores, pubs, and other businesses moved out, and were either replaced by national chain stores or saw their former locations demolished and replaced with towering glass-walled condominiums. Critical community services such as hospitals like St. Vincent’s and even gas stations literally disappeared from the landscape to make way for luxury building projects. This was particularly the case along the west side of Manhattan, in the West Village and  Chelsea neighborhoods, and, today, in the area formerly known as Hell’s Kitchen but now more antiseptically called “Hudson Yards.” I spoke with Jay about whether his decision to close was based on the national economic climate (“macroeconomic” issues) or the changes in the immediate neighborhood (“microeconomic factors.”)  Here is his reply:

“The main factors in closing are both micro and macro in nature.

Chelsea is a VERY different neighborhood than it was 13 years ago.  [It used to be] much more of a neighborhood, far more gay, younger, more focused on design, community, and things that were off the beaten path. That faded over the years, and was declared officially dead by 2007, killed off by the twin axes of the recession and the changing demographics of the neighborhood. The young gays moved on, and were replaced by richer straight folks from the midwest who have no ties to anything in NYC and are just in Chelsea as a way station to somewhere else.

Fair trade was always an excellent way for us to differentiate ourselves from competition and kept us alive longer than we would have if we were just another gift store. It also made us more profit than similar products might have from China because I could charge a premium for them.

My clientele shifted, the economics shifted, and I did not shift fast enough with the times. I should, in retrospect, have moved the store in 2008, or never opened 8th Avenue in the first place - but everything is always 20/20 in hindsight and no one had any way to know how bad and how long it would be bad for

We had our best year in many in 2013, but it simply was not enough, and certainly I was not having any fun anymore - I haven’t enjoyed it in many years. I’ve been in survival mode for 6 years now, and I have had enough.

As for the future – it’s still fairly amorphous

The website has certain areas that produce steady income from customers all over the US (and even abroad) that is almost entirely disconnected from store sales - these are people who find us online, not through the brick and mortar - and in many cases have never been to the store. Without the fixed overhead of a brick and mortar, it’s quite a nice little income source even now - and if I am not busy running a store I can spend time marketing it properly and grow the web business quite quickly I think. Add into that what I hope will be a successful men's jewelry line I am designing, and the website has a rather successful future, selling things that are exclusively available on and nowhere else on earth, online or off. THAT is the future of online. Hypersegmentation."


 Squeaky Wheel Media
With a dozen college business students in tow, I arrived at the door of  Squeaky Wheel Media, an independently-owned media and marketing agency located at 640 West 28th Street (between 11th Avenue and the West Side Highway), also in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.  

I had arranged this visit knowing little about the agency, except that it came highly recommended: Advertising Age, a time-honored journal of the marketing industry, awarded Squeaky their award for “Best Agency Culture” in their 2010 Small Agency Awards.  And one step out of the elevator in their retro-fitted industrial loft space, and it was easy to see why.

Co-Founder/President Anthony Del Monte has assembled a team of 20 individuals who represent as many nationalities and cultures as 20 people physically can.  Within minutes, one member of his staff was brainstorming a marketing approach with the students, while Anthony took my partner and I aside to brainstorm his latest innovation.  A cockatiel named Cuca flew around the loft, circling the Volkswagen beetle that sits in the middle of the floor.  Before we knew it, piles of pizza for the students arrived.  Our 30 minute visit turned into a 90 minute crash course in successful marketing and building a productive, positive business culture.

Their client base includes the Jackie Robinson Foundation; Lexus; the New York Live Arts; and one of their proudest, the “I Had Cancer” campaign.

 For Mailet Lopez, Squeaky co-founder, this had a personal element; she was diagnosed with stage 2B breast cancer in March 2008, and has been cancer-free since treatment. After her battle and openly talking to others about her experience she decided to give back to the community. “Cancer was not going to start taking control of my life,”she says. 

 In developing , Squeaky created a place where people can share their stories, insights and experiences to inspire others to keep up the fight.  A few months after our visit, Squeaky won the Internet’s "Webby Award” for this socially responsible campaign.

We left excited, energized, and overflowing with ideas and concepts.  It was a genuine joy to see that a New York City business, in the throes of a deadline-driven, frenetic, and sometimes cut throat market, can also be successful while being caring, fun, supportive, socially responsible, and diverse. (And it doesn’t hurt their staff consists of top-notch, high-quality professionals.)

That was my one visit to Squeaky, and it was in April 2012. 

This summer, I happened to be walking along Hudson River park, when a Squeaky employee, Luis, came jogging by.

He recognized my partner and me, and stopped in his tracks.  

Because that’s what Squeaky employees do.

In today’s world, there are no borders.  The small shop on Main Street may ship products to South Africa, while importing raw materials from Turkey.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with crossing borders, with ‘going global,’ or with expanding markets.

Rather, the problems occur when human concerns take a back seat to stockholder profits; when image is more important than substance; when producers feel they can throw low-quality goods and services at consumers who have no other choices.

Small businesses – like Arcadia, Squeaky Wheel, and others in this series – are the antidote to poor quality, poor working conditions, a languishing economy, and low consumer satisfaction.  And that is why we will continue to push the idea of patronizing local, small businesses and refusing to be held hostages by massive “corporate sameness.”

[This is the third in a series of posts on Small Business in America]

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