This is the first in an occasional series focusing on small businesses in Woodland Park.
As the Big Kahuna of shopping bears down on specialty retail in Woodland Park, business owners are thinking outside the Amazon box.
In ongoing chats with local merchants over a series of weeks The Courier will highlight the variety of retail and dining options that distinguish the City above the Clouds.
Capitalizing on a trend
Glass pipes, bongs and hookahs, hemp hats, clothing, Turkish lamps and metaphysical items — the inventory at Mountain Wookies is eclectic.
“I think we’re fitting the mold this town has needed,” said Todd Grube, general manager of the 109 W. Midland Ave., Woodland Park store. “We’re the little fun hippie town in the middle of the mountains.”
While the pipes and bongs are intended for smoking marijuana, which is illegal in Woodland Park and Teller County but legal in other parts of Colorado, Grube sends people to other places to buy the drug. “I’m not for or against cannabis, I just think the revenue could be wonderful,” he said.
The store, owned by Jon Meyer, carries a small amount of tobacco for hookah pipes. “We leave the tobacco products to other businesses in town. We’re not here to step on toes but to work with the community,” Grube said.
Grube sees a disconnect between the north and south sides of US 24, which runs through town. “We’d like to build up the south side of the street because the attention is only going to the north side,” Grube said, referring to the (north) side where The Cowhand is.
He added, “Putting that weird little horse thing, a steel cart with some ponies is not building up this side of the street,” referring to the metal stagecoach/horses in Woodland Station, a project of the Downtown Development Authority.
North side or south side, the bane of shopkeepers is US 24. “The biggest frustration about running a business in this town is seeing probably over 50 million cars going by on the highway and very few (people) walking on our streets,” Grube said. “And ones who are all on the other side because that’s what’s made pretty and promoted.”
However, in the six years Mountain Wookies has been open, business has improved every year, Grube said. “The majority of the people who come in here are from all economic classes, from Teller, El Paso, Park and Denver counties,” he said. “The Wookies is bringing its own customer base in. Because we’re the coolest store in the universe.”
Whether a customer smokes or not, the glass-blown pipes and bongs by local such as Dave Fisherman and “Solomon” of multiple colors and designs are varied and unique and could be collector’s items.
Shopping by click
For some, the catchphrase “buy local” is the bottom line, as shopkeepers face competition from online purveyors.
“The world is shifting and people are looking to buy things in a different way,” said Laurie Glauth, who with Jan Green owns Mountain Naturals, 720 Red Feather Lane, a health food\grocery store that also features local products. “And the younger generation, right now, it’s all about speed, getting on their phones, ordering and having it delivered.”
But there’s a cost to ordering online. “If they’re not supported, small businesses will go away,” Glauth said. “A community has to see value in supporting local — by keeping the money in the community we can afford to work and live here so we can pay for our services with sales taxes.”
For the retail sector it’s a race to the proverbial cash register against those gig-economy clicks.
“Specialty retail as we know it might be a thing of the past,” said Ralph Holloway, former owner of Seven Arrows art gallery as well as a health-food store, both of which closed more than 10 years ago. “Internet sales have probably done more to kill retail than anything.”
Holloway, with his wife, Darlene, have re-jiggered the playing field with another business.
“We’ve had Studio West Aveda for over 20 years and it’s a successful business,” Holloway said of the 216 W. Midland Ave. salon and spa.
“That’s the difference between specialty retail and a salon/spa — because women are always going to get their hair and nails done. That’s the kind of business that is supported by the locals.”
Finding a niche
On the other hand, Pam Mikesell isn’t buying the notion that a screen holds the keys to specialty retail in Woodland Park. She recently opened Miss Priss, a women’s boutique in the Vintage Square Market in the heart of downtown.
With no previous entrepreneurial experience, Mikesell is relying on her skills as a designer and her keen eye for fashion, which is noticeable as she appears at events around town, to make her business work.
“I want to make sure I have sizes that accommodate everybody at affordable prices,” she said.
“Just because it’s a boutique doesn’t mean prices have to be outrageous.”
If successful business owners have to have a marketing gimmick, Mikesell’s is Ladies’ Night on the 2nd Thursday of the month.
“It’s been phenomenal, a great time to socialize, meet new people and shop,” she said.
For special occasions, Mikesell coordinates the inventory — T-shirts, for instance — with the event.
“That’s what’s so great about a boutique — my store is always changing, she said. “You just have to be aware of the calendar.”
And like the Holloways, Mikesell owns the building that houses her business, which helps with overhead.
While restaurant owners don’t have to deal with the Amazon factor, they face other challenges.
“As a mayor and business owner I’d say it’s hard to be successful up here,” said Mayor Neil Levy, who owns the Swiss Chalet, 19263 US 24 — an eatery that’s popular for power lunches and dinners. “The key for all of us is finding good help and the labor market is really tough.”
High employee turnover is a typical issue in the restaurant business. It’s tough to find and keep good help.
“So that’s another issue we face,” Levy said.
However, Levy has an ace in the hole in that department. “I’ve just been lucky in my employees: they make good money, it’s a good place to work and we’ve got great customers,” he said. “I just wish somebody could give me the magic potion of how we can do better.”
Another issue is customer perception of the cost of a meal at “The Swiss,” as it’s known to the locals. “Some people say our prices are too high. I know they’re not,” Levy said.
As an example, Levy cited the price he recently paid — $19.11 for a double-cheese hamburger, fries and a drink — at a chain restaurant in Colorado Springs. “Our hamburger/fries is $14.50,” he said.
Whether it’s a tough labor market, the perception that “The Swiss” is too expensive or the cars whizzing by on US 24, attracting new customers is tough.
“How can we do a better job with all these people driving through town — that’s always been an issue. People are pretty single-minded, they’re going camping, fishing, they’re outta here,” Levy said.
What do SHOPPERS want?
Apparently, passers-through don’t want art, at least not enough to support a local art gallery. When it comes to shoppers bypassing the city, Holloway is still baffled why Seven Arrows didn’t last, “... even though Woodland Park still ought to be an art mecca because people come here for vacation, walk the streets and want to buy something,” he said.
The gallery featured works by local artists, was the springboard for Friday Art Walks (now gone) and the host of an art show for students at Columbine Elementary School. On the side, Holloway founded the nonprofit Woodland Park Arts Alliance.
Holloway has a theory that many people think it’s culturally glamorous to drive somewhere else to buy art, maybe Taos or Santa Fe. “It’s human nature, which dictates a lot of those kinds of decisions that we all make,” he said, adding that he has also bought art while traveling New Mexico.
No doubt about it, business owners need to be sharply aware of consumer trends.
“I don’t know what the answer is, whether we haven’t had the right owners or retail options in town, but I can speak for myself,” Levy said.
“I’ve been here since 1991 and really, it gets harder every year. We do a pretty good job and it’s still really hard. We all need to do better.”
But Glauth at Mountain Naturals thinks she sees a glimpse of something better. “The baby boomer generation still wants to squeeze a tomato and kick a tire, so to speak,” she said, referring to being able to touch and see goods before buying.
“More and more people are ‘getting it.’” she said.” “We have loyal customers, but in the bigger picture those customers are not just buying, they’re investing in their own community. And we all benefit from it — that’s sustainable.”