California Avenue retailing among brightest in region |

California Avenue retailing among brightest in region

Anne Knowles

Location isn’t everything, but for most retailers it may help buoy business in the worst of times.

Unless every privately-owned store or restaurant in Reno opens its books, it is impossible to know whether shops on California Avenue have survived the rough waves of recent years more than retailers in other parts of the city. But, with a few notable exceptions, stores along the Old Southwest thoroughfare look like they’ve weathered the economic storm better than most.

“It definitely doesn’t look like a bomb went off, as it does around IGT,” in once booming South Meadows, says Lee Harris, owner of Light + Space, a lighting consultant located on California Avenue who has designed lighting for the Truckee River Bridge, the City of Reno Council Chambers and the Edgewood Golf clubhouse among others. “But I’ve seen things come and go. Our building was almost full a year ago and now three large spaces have been vacated.”

Several high-profile businesses are now gone. The Kalifornia Jean Bar, an upscale seller of designer jeans and other women’s clothing, closed up shop in November 2011 after six years on California Avenue and then around the corner on Humboldt Street to focus on its stores in Truckee, Tahoe City and Northstar.

“Sales were much lower down there,” says Hannah Anderson, a sales person for the store in Truckee.

The Chocolate Bar, a bar and restaurant once located at the corner of Arlington Street, moved downtown, next door to the Century Riverside 12 movie theater on North Sierra Street, where new owners hoped to take advantage of higher foot traffic, according to Brittany Friedman, a marketing manager for the bar.

And the TRS Gallery closed, but owner Marcia Rayford says she hopes to reopen at another location, possibly again on Cal Ave., after a plan to merge with Wildflower Village gallery on West Fourth Street fell through. For now, she sometimes uses space at La Garage, a year-old second-hand store on California Avenue.

“The location didn’t do us a lot of good,” says Rayford. “Some stores did better than others, but we were not able to do it.”

“The economy did hit California Avenue as it hit everybody around here,” says Debbie Branby, owner of The Cheese Board, a cafe and caterer. “I doubt anyone escaped it.”

Branby, who set up shop on Cal Ave. in 1985, says she has had to make changes to adjust, like offering what she called a “credit crunch” special, all with the goal of continuing to use high-quality products and help staff with health insurance costs.

“We reduced profit margins, changed the management structure, we looked at everything very, very seriously,” says Branby. “People do multiple jobs. We’re cross-trained.”

But like many area store owners, Branby is happy with her location if not the economy.

“I love California Avenue,” she says. “It is the most diverse street in Reno.”

Branby and others cite the street’s eclectic mix of businesses, restaurants and small shops as well as the Nevada Museum of Art all within walking distance, and many housed in older, architecturally-interesting buildings, as key to the street’s appeal.

“I see vibrancy in the amount of foot traffic going to restaurants and select retailers,” says Mike Perkins, project manager, MTK Ltd., a real estate development firm on California Avenue. “It draws restaurant patrons from nearby office buildings. And there are a lot of people to draw from the Old Southwest. It is the nicest, most eclectic, cleanest street in town.”

Says Christine Kelly, owner of Sundance Books and Music, which last year celebrated 25 years in Reno and relocated from its long-time spot off Keystone Avenue and Fourth Street to California Avenue:

“It has the classic Reno feel that you do not get in strip malls. There is a lot of variety and vibrancy to this area.”

And it doesn’t hurt that California Avenue is an offshoot of what many call “Midtown,” the trendy and rapidly redeveloping section of Virginia Street between California Ave. and Mount Rose Street.

“Traffic to our store has significantly improved,” since it relocated, says Kelly.

Sundance helped revitalize the area, according to Michael Altizer, owner of La Garage.

“In the last six months it has taken a turn for the better,” says Altizer. “With the bookstore moving in people are coming back.”

Altizer has been organizing area events, including Days on the Avenue, a street fair with tents and vendors on Saturdays during the summer, and Holiday Sip and Shop, which provided shoppers with free shuttle bus rides between downtown retail areas every Saturday in December. He’s working with the struggling California Avenue Merchants Association, which while still active has lost some clout among area merchants.

“In this day and age each individual business has to spend so much time on their own business,” says Alan Squailia, owner, Bellissima Beauty & Wig Salon, a full-service salon and wig shop. “Ones that are successful don’t need an association to help them and those that do, don’t last.”

Squailia says business is booming for his salon, in part due to the economy, not in spite of it. When people are struggling, he says, they spend more on their personal appearance to feel better. He also attributes his location, in a converted old house, as a key ingredient.

“Our clients tell us they feel so comfortable here, like they’re going into a home,” says Squailia, who has been at his California Street location for 25 years. “I see a fantastic outlook for California Avenue. It’s become a destination place.”

A much newer establishment, three-year old St. James Infirmary, says business on California Avenue is good, too.

“We’ve been doing well since we opened,” says Art Farley, the bar’s owner. “Reno embraced us almost immediately.”

He says the bar is unique, with a roof-top patio, with a choice of 100 bottled beers and 21 on draught, house cocktails, televisions showing black-and-white movies and a cabaret featuring bands from the Bay Area and elsewhere that wouldn’t otherwise play in Reno. But he also thinks the downtown location has something to do with the bar’s success, especially on California Avenue, which he says has stayed fairly pristine over the years due to the law offices and homes located there.

“People are moving back into the core of town, into downtown,” says Farley. “Midtown is having a bit of a renaissance while the suburban idea is dying.”