Struggling In Downtown La Mesa

LA MESA -- For 100 years small businesses have been born along the downtown streets of La Mesa. Reasonable rents and steady traffic made it a proving ground of sorts.

Some shops have thrived and become icons of the community for a time; others have failed and quietly disappeared.

That cycle, it might appear at first, is continuing.

Steve Blake, who for more than 20 years, has run his Sign DeSign shop on La Mesa Boulevard, is leaving the boulevard, moving his service back to his Santee home.

Just a few doors down, Readers Inc. owner Deena While has quietly been telling friends that she will have to close her shop in January unless business suddenly improves.

And just across town, the Get Centered Clay Studio's gifted owner Elly Dotseth, is telling friends she needs five more co-tenants or her quest to create a community arts center may end.

But in some ways, these struggles may be more than the natural rise and fall of shops that have punctuated life in La Mesa's first century.

In the case of both Sign DeSign and Readers Inc. the rise of Internet commerce is shifting the ways printing of signs and the selling of books is occuring. More and more in both businesses, orders are being placed on line and delivered to customers who no longer are as dependent as they once were on the shops they pass by on their daily travels.

"I can't tell you how many people come in here, see my shop, browse and say 'What a lovely shop,'" Deena While says.

And it is a pretty shop. Opened in 2008, a model railroad train circles the store along high walls that are lined with the book titles that are selling in big numbers to young families. But more and more of that sale is happening with the click of a mouse and arrive on a big brown truck in the purchaser's driveway a few days later. And more traditional competition from the big box book sellers and chain book stores are making it harder for someone like While to pay the rent on a main street store.

While says she may not, in the end, leave the children's book scene, but might consider taking a page from the Friday night food trucks in downtown La Mesa and create a mobile book sales operation that can go to the customer.

Blake has had long, traditional relationships with customers who have counted on him to attract and direct customers to their stores and services. But his industry, too, has been undergoing a quiet revolution. Printing technologies have morphed in recent years as the digital revolution has moved from cyberspace into the machines that produce banners and signs of all kinds.

A large portion of the small printing jobs that were the staple of some local print shops -- business cards, for example -- long ago migrated to Internet printers who could aggregate volume and undercut the best prices storefront operations could offer. That same shift is now happening in the kinds of sign jobs and services that Blake offered.

"I am not leaving the business,'' Blake said. "I have many great customers and I hope to keep them. But I needed to reduce my costs so I can compete and keep meeting my customers' needs.''

Blake said his landlord has been great, lowering his rent and giving him all the help he could in a difficult economy, but the business just demands lower overhead these days. And so an anchor tenant for 21 years is closing the familiar shop and will operate out of his home.

In 2008, just a short time before the stock market crash, Elly Dotseth signed a lease for the large work space on Center Drive, a lively commercial district tucked away between downtown and I-8. She had a plan to attract artists who couldn't afford their own large studio, but might share space and kilns and buy supplies in a sort of co-op or club setting.

Ten artists have joined her and the space has the sort of creative vibe that a town is proud to find in its midst. But ten isn't enough to cover the rent and Dotseth is telling customers that without five more artists paying $150 per month, Get Centered will have to close too.

"This is a community resource,'' Dotseth says. "We have loft space and can handle painters, sculptors, even writers who just want a quiet space to pursue their art.''

Get Centered is tucked away from foot traffic and perhaps suffers from that, but birthing a business has been difficult in a recession, Dotseth says.

Traditonal business success, like love affairs, it seems are greatly influenced by the same factors: Chance and timing. But it also appears that some of the factors reshaping the mix along the streets of downtown La Mesa, may not be just the traditional ones.



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Tags: Downtown La Mesa, Get Centered Clay Studio, La Mesa, La Mesa real estate, Readers Inc., Sign Design, Steve Blake


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Comment by Dennis S. Twiss on November 16, 2011 at 10:57pm

Consumers hopefully come to realize that the traditional brick & mortar has something that is very important to the consumer, and is the lifeblood of the business. PERSONAL CUSTOMER SERVICE!!!  An example - if Steve forgets to make a comma that goes with a set of Sintra lettering, I'd be willing to bet that the customer could go back to his store and get one made while waiting.  No forms to fill out online, no extra shipping time or charges, no having to return everything just to get that little comma.


Would it be that easy of a situation to rectify with an internet based sign business?  I think we all know the answer to that!


Another question that needs to be addressed is that of the establishment of a PBID.  Will that make it any easier for a business to be profitable in this business environment?  In my opinion, definitely not.  Do the readers here really believe that the building owners will just absorb the costs of the PBID as a business expense and not pass it on to the tenants/businesses?


I will take my business elsewhere rather than support any business that is trying to jam the PBID down the throats of La Mesa's business owners.  I hope you will too!

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