Lexington’s Fayette Cigar Store a downtown retail survivor

February 10, 2014

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Fayette Cigar Store has been at 137 E. Main St. since Dale Ferguson bought the building in 1977. He resisted attempts by the city to buy the building when it purchased other property on the block, which now includes the Fayette County Court Houses, left, and the Downtown Arts Center, right. Below, Ferguson and a daughter, Dee Bright. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

With all of the talk about the need to attract retailers back to downtown Lexington, I thought it would be good to talk with one who never left.

Dale Ferguson, 75, and his family have been selling newspapers, magazines, tobacco products and sundries downtown since 1928.

That was the year his father, H.C. Ferguson, opened a newsstand on Mill Street. Soon after World War II started, he bought Fayette Cigar Store at 151 West Main Street “when the owner got drafted,” Ferguson said.

When that building was scheduled for a renovation that would have forced him to close for several months, Dale Ferguson bought a bigger building at 137 East Main in 1977 and moved the business. Fayette Cigar Store has been there ever since, despite the best efforts of developers and city officials to buy his property.

Surrounding buildings were bought in the 1980s for a proposed World Trade Center and cultural complex. Eventually, the new Fayette County Court House complex was built on his west side and the Downtown Arts Center on his east side.

At one point, Ferguson said, he agreed to city requests to swap his building for a similar one in the next block, but financial terms couldn’t be reached with its owner. So Ferguson stayed put, through thick and thin, trying to make a living on his 32-foot-long slice of Main Street.

140206FayetteCigar0023Ferguson’s three-story building dates from 1864, with central and rear sections added in the early 1900s. Before he bought the building, bookies operated in the upper floors, which was connected to an adjacent building by a hole in the wall. Now, the upper floors are accessed by an antique elevator.

Modern fire codes would keep Ferguson from using the upper floors for anything but storage and an office unless he could figure out a way to build a staircase.

“That stops a lot of downtown development,” he said, “A lot of these old buildings don’t have fire escapes.”

Ferguson said making Main Street one-way in 1971 hurt business, as did eliminating more and more street parking over the years.

“It was a mistake to do it,” he said of the one-way conversion, but added that he isn’t convinced making Main Street two-way again would do much good. “It’s too late.”

A bigger improvement, he said, would be adding more street parking, preferably angled or perpendicular spaces that would be easier for people to use and accommodate more cars.

During the last streetscape renovation in 2010, Ferguson lost a loading zone in front of his store, which hurt business.

“People would pull up, run in and buy a $200 box of cigars, and be gone in a few minutes,” he said. “They can’t do that anymore.”

But the biggest obstacle Ferguson sees to getting more retailers back in downtown Lexington is high per-square-foot rents.

“If I didn’t own my building, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “I blame a lot of it on the Webbs, who overpaid for property and then had to get a return on their investment.” But the biggest problem, Ferguson said, is that too few people work downtown — he suspects less than a fifth as many as did two or three decades ago. The addition of downtown condos over the past decade hasn’t made much difference, he said. But he thinks more big apartment complexes like Park Plaza would help.

Ferguson now runs Fayette Cigar Store seven days a week with help from one of his four daughters, Dee Bright. Thanks to a resurgence in cigar smoking, customers come to the store for its extensive selection of high-end smokes, which are kept in a former bank vault in back. Pipe smoking also is on the rebound as cigarettes decline.

Cigars and fine pipe tobacco are the store’s biggest profit centers. But Ferguson says he doesn’t know what the future holds, noting that all of his main wares — tobacco, magazines, newspapers and greeting cards — have been in decline for years.

Ferguson has tried to fight back by adding niche products such as basic drugstore items and local honey. Still, business is tough.

“I have a pretty loyal customer base,” he said. “Thank God for that.”

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More small Lexington businesses are ‘doing well by doing good’

February 4, 2013

West Sixth Brewery partners, left to right, Ben Self, Joe Kuosman, Robin Sither and Brady Barlow made community improvement part of their business plan. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

As so many businesses become consolidated and conglomerated, the only things that seem to matter are profit, shareholder value and excessive executive compensation. Communities, like employees, become expendable.

But the trend with small, locally owned businesses seems different, at least in Lexington. You don’t have to look far to see it.

Since its creation in 2008, Local First Lexington, a non-profit alliance of locally owned and independently operated businesses, has made community enrichment a priority. And many business people do things on their own, such as insurance agent Debra Hensley, who spends a lot of time on public service and community-building.

These business people are doing great things for Lexington. But they are quick to tell you that their efforts also are good for their businesses. There’s a term for it: “Doing well by doing good.”

Stella’s Kentucky Deli does regular “dining for a cause” nights, donating 15 percent of sales to a local charity. Thai Orchid, Nick Ryan’s Saloon and many other restaurants do similar fund-raising nights and events.

Lexington retailers often donate merchandise or gift certificates for charity auctions, or they sponsor events and non-profit organizations. Some examples: Joseph-Beth Booksellers has book fairs for organizations, giving them as much as 20 percent of sales. The Morris Book Shop sponsors several local non-profits, makes donations and opens its store for events.

“I think you’re seeing a lot more of it,” said Ben Self, one of four partners who opened West Sixth Brewery in April. “I think people are starting to understand that it’s not a one-way street. It’s beneficial all the way around.

“That’s the future of building communities: businesses and non-profits working together for common goals.”

West Sixth Brewery has some of Lexington’s most ambitious community outreach efforts, beginning with the 90,000-square-foot former bread factory the partners bought for their brewery and tasting room.

They rent space in the rambling building to artists, writers and a variety of community-minded businesses and non-profit organizations. Those include Broke Spoke Community Bike Shop, Magic Beans Coffee Roasters, Roller Girls of Central Kentucky, and FoodChain, a sustainable urban agriculture non-profit started by Self’s wife, Rebecca.

“It’s nice to see the synergies and cooperation among the different groups,” said partner Joe Kuosman, noting the Roller Girls have after-hours events at the brewery, where its resident artists’ work is displayed.

“We committed from the very beginning to giving 6 percent of our profits to local charitable organizations,” Self said of the brewery, “and we far exceeded that the first year.”

In addition, the brewery sponsors an event for a different local non-profit each month, donating 6 percent of sales that night. The next one, on Wednesday, benefits the Community Farm Alliance.

The events often bring in people who have never been to West Sixth, but then come back again and again, partner Brady Barlow said.

West Sixth’s partners also set sustainability goals for their business, from rehabilitating an old building with reclaimed wood fixtures to recycling waste, and canning rather than bottling their beer since it’s easier to recycle.

Bourbon n’ Toulouse restaurant owners Will Pieratt, left, and Kevin Heathcoat.

Bourbon n’ Toulouse, a Chevy Chase restaurant that serves good, cheap Cajun food, has made community outreach the core of its marketing strategy since it opened in 2004. Partners Will Pieratt and Kevin Heathcoat give away a lot of gift certificates for charity and frequently sponsor events where as much as 25 percent of that day’s sales go to a non-profit.

The restaurant’s two biggest annual events are Empty Bowls, a partnership with Kentucky Mudworks pottery studio that benefits Moveable Feast, which provides meals to local people living with HIV/AIDS; and one for the Race for the Cure, which benefits research into breast cancer, which killed Heathcoat’s mother.

Other events have focused on disaster relief, such as Bow to the Brow day last March that honored University of Kentucky basketball player Anthony Davis and raised money for Eastern Kentucky tornado recovery.

“Some of our very best customers came here for the first time for a charity event,” Heathcoat said. “We just can’t believe more businesses don’t do this.”

Beyond growing their business, though, Pieratt and Heathcoat think community support is simply the right thing to do.

“We opened on seven credit cards and $10,000 I borrowed from my brother,” Heathcoat said. “If it wasn’t for this neighborhood, we wouldn’t have made it. Our philosophy from day one has been that the community supported us so we have a responsibility to give back.”

Wyn Morris, owner of The Morris Book Shop, feels that sense even more acutely. His father, lawyer Leslie Morris, was among the 49 people killed when Comair Flight 5191 crashed on takeoff from Blue Grass Airport on Aug. 27, 2006.

“Lexington truly came through for all of us,” said Morris, who opened his bookstore two years later and decided to put community engagement at the core of his business plan. “I just realized I hadn’t done much of anything for the community. It was a kind of a wake-up call.”


Lexington’s last hardware store survives on customer service

August 27, 2012

Bill Edwards, left, owner of Chevy Chase Hardware, helps Bill Mallory, who lives in Harrison County but stopped in on his way to a fishing trip to get a few nuts and lock washers. Mallory said he has been shopping with Edwards since he opened his first hardware store on Centre Parkway in 1975. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

When Bill Edwards opened his first hardware store 37 years ago, Lexington was a small city with more traditional hardware stores than he could count on both hands.

Now Lexington is much bigger, but Edwards needs only one finger to count them. He says his Chevy Chase Hardware is the last one.

Ace Hardware in Tates Creek Center closed this spring, followed recently by Do it Best Hardware in Palomar Center. Others disappeared years ago. High rent and competition from big-box chains have taken their toll.

In fact, Edwards thinks his business would have been history 12 years ago had he not moved to East High Street from Richmond Road, where he had been for 20 years. Within months of each other, Home Depot and Lowe’s opened stores near his.

“We might have been able to survive one of them, but not two,” Edwards said. “We work with a much smaller profit margin than most businesses because we carry a large inventory of slow-selling items.”

Edwards said his store has always done well in the Chevy Chase building, which earlier housed hardware stores run by Wilson Cox and Dick Botkin. The area of small, mostly local retailers is an easy drive, walk or bike ride from in-town neighborhoods such as Chevy Chase, Ashland Park, Hollywood, Columbia Heights, Mentelle and Kenwick.

“This is a unique neighborhood, very supportive of local businesses,” Edwards said. “That’s a different attitude than we had at the other locations. It’s almost like being in another town.”

But Edwards credits his success to more than location. He said other keys to operating a good hardware store are selection, competitive prices and, most of all, customer service. At Chevy Chase Hardware, that includes everything from fixing lawn mowers and screens to sharpening tools, cutting glass and copying keys.

“Everybody’s so friendly,” said Debbie Chamblin, who usually walks over with her dog from her home on Ashland Avenue. One morning last week, she came in to buy a few things and pick up hedge trimmers she had left for sharpening.

“Just anything you need, they’re ready and willing to help you,” Chamblin said. “They’ll even help me fix things.”

Bill Mallory has been shopping with Edwards since he opened his first store on Centre Parkway in 1975.

“The nice thing here is you just tell the people what you need and they go right to it and get it for you,” said Mallory, who now lives in Harrison County but stopped in for a few nuts and lock washers on his way to fish.

Edwards stocks more than 20,000 items in his 4,400 square feet of retail space, which has been expanded several times since the first hardware store opened there in 1946. He carries many hard-to-find items.

“If it’s a slow-moving item that doesn’t generate a lot of profit, they just won’t carry it,” he said of his big-box competitors.

Because his store is part of a national buying group, Edwards said, he can match most competitors’ prices, except for some big-ticket items.

“We check Lowe’s and Home Depot to make sure we are in line,” he said. “Sometimes we’re actually less than they are. We can’t compete on everything, but we can certainly keep it reasonable enough to not offend anybody.”

Hands-on management is key. Edwards works the floor six days a week, constantly straightening shelves when he isn’t helping customers. His wife and co-owner, Carol, a former elementary school teacher, manages the office. They will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary in February.

Chevy Chase Hardware has 11 employees, many of whom are college students or recent graduates. And then there is Luther Hilliard, 87, a longtime employee who now works a couple of days a week repairing screens.

“I don’t know what I would do if I just had to sit around and not work,” said Hilliard, who retired from the insurance business. “There’s nothing on TV.”

Edwards said he thought for years about opening a store on Leestown Road around Meadowthorpe, an area with qualities similar to Chevy Chase, but he could never find an affordable place to buy or rent. High rents are a big reason many hardware stores have closed in Lexington but remain in surrounding towns.

“We’re fine if we can keep our rent under control,” said Edwards, 63, who has tried unsuccessfully to buy his building. “We have seven years left on the lease, and I might be ready to quit by then.”

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