On each day of Small Business Week, Inc. will spotlight a different competitive advantage of local brick-and-mortar companies.
Long-established businesses bestow a sense of continuity. People find it comforting to shop the same aisles their parents and grandparents once shopped. There is a bond, too, between companies and customers that together have celebrated good times and weathered tough ones. Sometimes, the store has played a key role in the area's history. Such businesses aren't great because they are old. Rather, they were able to grow old because they are great.
These companies are local institutions.
McKevlin's Surf Shop
In the late 1960s, Dennis McKevlin created a call-in line to notify customers about current wave and water conditions. Those reports served a second purpose: turning out crowds at city council meetings to protest efforts to shut down surfing at Folly Beach, South Carolina.
"At the time, surfing was associated in a lot of people's minds with long hair and drugs and kids goofing off," says Dennis's son Tim McKevlin, who now owns McKevlin's Surf Shop. "Residents complained that surfers were making a lot of noise in the morning and cutting through their yards to get to the beach." The local government tried to ban surfing or restrict it to a single small area. McKevlin's became the hub of organized resistance.
Frustrated by the politicians' intransigence, Dennis McKevlin ran for and won a seat on the city council, where for 10 years he championed surfers' rights. He declared victory in 1976 when a federal court reopened prime stretches of Folly Beach to the sport.
Surfing had arrived on the South Carolina coast in the early '60s via the teenaged children of personnel stationed at military bases in Charleston. Tim McKevlin's brother Ted was among a pack of young locals trained by the military kids in the art of the board. The McKevlin family opened the second-ever surf shop in the area in 1965. (The first did not survive.)
"Back then, surf shops had the reputation of being their own society. You had to be Mr. Cool to walk in," says Tim McKevlin. "Our idea was to be super welcoming to everybody. We were spreading the surfing gospel."
Dennis McKevlin built the original store right across from the beach and raised it on stilts so he could get flood insurance. Big West Coast surfboard companies came courting. Tim took over in the mid-1980s as the sport surged and new products deluged the market.
In 1995, McKevlin's returned to the political trenches, fighting an ordinance that prohibited surfing at the Washout, a primo spot. Again, the surfers won.
McKevlin's continues to offer the latest model boards, as well as lessons, rentals, and a consignment program unusual for the industry. Its own branded clothes and accessories--board shorts, T-shirts, and hats--are ubiquitous in the area. Roughly 30 percent of sales derive from products bearing either the McKevlin's Surf Shop logo or the logo of its other brand, called Lines. It's named for "what surfers see when they look out at the ocean and rows of waves are coming in," McKevlin explains.
The store, which employs 10 people, sponsors the longest-established surf team in the state. And local kids get their first shot at glory competing in the annual D.J. McKevlin Gromfest. (A grom is a young surfer.)
As for McKevlin's Surf Report, it no longer serves political ends. But it continues to operate. "Now people can put an app on their phones and check out the waves before they come," McKevlin says. "But they still call here all the time. It is constantly ringing."
Summer Auerbach recalls her father talking about the early days of Rainbow Blossom, the first health food store in Louisville. When the business opened in 1977, reactions were mixed. Some residents were thrilled to welcome something so cosmopolitan. Others did not know what to make of it.
"He told me about two women who came into the store giggling and clutching their pocketbooks," Auerbach says. "He asked if he could help them. They said they were buying a gag gift for a friend."
Back then, Rainbow Blossom was chiefly a café serving things like homemade tortilla chips and quiche with whole wheat crust. Summer's parents, Rob and Pumpkin Auerbach, also sold in bulk ingredients such as beans and wheat berries. The business barely scraped by.
Then Yes came to town. The English rock band was playing Louisville Gardens and required a vegetarian menu. The promoter contacted Rainbow Blossom. "He asked if we did catering," Auerbach says. "My parents had never done a catering job, but they said yes." Through the late '70s and early '80s, the Auerbachs fed performers ranging from the Rolling Stones and Elvis Costello to Bonnie Raitt and Liza Minnelli.
Those jobs helped the business survive until demand for natural foods caught up with it. For 25 years, Rainbow Blossom introduced Louisville to health food innovations: soy milk, gluten-free products, frozen yogurt, even Perrier. Pre-internet, the business also became an informal clearinghouse for information on health products, ailments, and local practitioners.
Then in 2003, Wild Oats pitched a tent in Louisville. Whole Foods followed the next year. Auerbach's father, suffering with cancer, could not muster a response. (He later recovered.) Almost overnight, sales dropped 50 percent.
Just back from college, Auerbach agreed to help. Job number one, she decided, was to revive employee morale by luring people back into the store. So she staged an alternative health fair with 20 local natural and holistic practitioners. The event attracted customers and reinforced Rainbow Blossom's connections with health professionals, who would go on to refer patients to the store. Auerbach followed up with a series of tasting events featuring low-carb, vegetarian, and gluten-free foods. She also cut deals with suppliers. The business started to revive.
In 2006, Auerbach created one of Louisville's early farmers markets in the parking lot of the family's flagship store. (Rainbow Blossom operates four locations and a wellness center, employing a total of 100 people.) It was the first local farmers market to accept food stamps and credit cards. Rainbow Blossom rang up the purchases for vendors and paid the processing fees. That brought more people into the store and further endeared the business to farmers, many of them Auerbach's suppliers.
Today, Rainbow Blossom is still the first place Louisvillians go for new products. The company's weeklong Taste of Yoga program--21 free classes in such styles as Hatha and Ashtanga--has become a high-profile annual event. The business offers many other services as well, from a community-supported agriculture program to birthing classes and new moms' groups.
Auerbach herself is a new mom; her son is 1 month old. "We put it on the marquee," she says. "Third generation coming soon."
The Emporium Western Store
For decades, Kern County, California, residents have heard the jingle, set to a country music twang. For western wear, the ad exhorts them, "Look for the Big Red Boot."
The footwear in question--six feet tall and made of fiberglass--rests on a platform outside the Emporium Western Store in downtown Bakersfield. Founded in 1909 as simply the Emporium, the business was originally a general store that sold clothing and housewares to local farmers and ranchers.
Isaac Rubin, a Polish immigrant, bought the business in 1928. Rubin's daughter and son-in-law, Rose and Al Goldwater, took the reins in 1946. Soon after that, an employee named Juanita Clark approached them with an idea. "Her husband was a roper on the rodeo circuit," says Stephen Goldwater, Rubin's grandson and the store's current owner. "She said we should carry more cowboy things, because those people have no place to go." The Emporium became the Emporium Western Store.
At that time, western wear was just emerging as a specialty market. The Emporium Western Store sold cowboy boots and hats, snap-button shirts, and jeans. Oil workers and hunters joined farmers and ranchers shopping there. They were rugged, practical people buying rugged, practical clothes.
Then, in the '50s: show business! TV programs starring Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and Hopalong Cassidy inspired millions of city slickers to get their cowboy on. Meanwhile, bands flocked to local honky-tonks where the rock-inflected "Bakersfield Sound" was transforming country music. Performers took the stage in bold-colored and embroidered shirts supplied by Emporium Western.
Buck Owens and Merle Haggard were among those whom Al Goldwater clothed. Owens, in particular, was a friend of the store for half a century. Right after landing his first major gig in Los Angeles, he came in to tell Al Goldwater about it. "My dad said, 'What are you going to wear?'" Stephen Goldwater says. "Buck said, 'I don't know. I can't afford anything.' My dad said, 'Let's outfit you, and when you get the money you can pay me back.' Of course, Buck got huge in country music. And he paid my dad back."
The Emporium Western Store became known for two other things. First, it embosses names and initials on the backs of leather belts, a service that's grown increasingly rare. The business also uses a steamer to soften cowboy hats, which a practiced staff member can shape to the customer's liking--indenting the top, for example, or rolling the brim on the sides.
Goldwater and his sister, Carol Goldwater Durst, took over the store in the early '90s. (Goldwater Durst has since retired.) Three-quarters of revenue still comes from outfitting ranchers, farmers, and other outdoorspeople. Tourists and musicians make up much of the rest. With Hollywood just 90 minutes away, the area is also popular among filmmakers. Actors and crews drop in while on location.
"Unfortunately, little stores like this in the industry are dying out," Goldwater says. One reason is lack of interest from the next generation--including Goldwater's own children, who aren't eager to take over the family business. Another is competition from Boot Barn, a large public chain with a younger audience and less authenticity.
There is a Boot Barn in Bakersfield. It is located on Buck Owens Boulevard.