May was a month-long goodbye party for the owner of The Cage, a music merchandise and fetish shop formerly located at 1765 Bardstown Road. Owner Robert Rivera used the time to thank longtime customers and try to sell them everything he could, down to the store fixtures. Rivera, 35, planned to take a trip with his fiance and plot his future after the store closed for good. He says things on Bardstown Road didn’t work out as he had envisioned when he opened the business in 2008.
“When I first saw Bardstown Road it reminded me of Clark Street in Chicago, which is a real eclectic area,” Rivera says. “The first six to eight months was like gang busters. Then traffic just started to die down. Part of it was the economy, but I also think Bardstown Road is not what it used to be. It was the mecca of Louisville in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Some people still think it’s the mecca of Louisville, but there are a lot of areas that are cheaper and have more potential.”
The Cage is the latest in a long list of Bardstown Road-area businesses that have closed or relocated to other areas of the city in the last several years. The list includes Swanson Cralle Gallery, Objects of Desire, Amazing Grace, The Knit Nook, Grateful Threads, Ray’s Monkey House, and Rigolo. Of course, not of all of these businesses left Bardstown Road for the same reason, but some of the owners cited reasons similar to Rivera’s problems: high rent, decreased foot traffic, and a desire to be in a location with more complementary businesses.
Rivera still has a Cage store in Chicago, where he lived until he moved to Louisville in 2005, and he’s doing a brisk business online at www.thecageofky.com. He hasn’t ruled out opening a new Cage location in the River City, but says it will probably be on Preston Street where similar stores are already located. “Someone needs to open their eyes and become realistic about Bardstown Road,” Rivera says. “It’s just not hot right now.”
The Highlands Commerce Guild does not keep statistics on the closing of businesses on the commercial strip that runs through the Highlands business district, basically from Lexington Road to Gardiner Lane. But Larry Rother, the group’s president, says stores come and go as a natural part of the retail life cycle on the strip. “Businesses relocate for many reasons as owners make strategic decisions based on many rational and emotional factors,” Rother explains. “The popularity of the Highlands business district for shopping, dining and fun keep it in high demand as a place to locate a business. Whether it’s a Wednesday or the weekend, winter or summer, people love to patronize the Highlands.”
Bill Wright, owner of Highlands Records, says Bardstown Road is changing in some ways. Since ear X-tacy relocated, he has fewer skateboarders stopping in to look through his bins, but says basically the culture of the street is the same as it has always been. He opened up his record store in 1997 after his collection got so big he was moving furniture out of his home to make room for it. From his spot at 1617 Bardstown Road, Wright has seen businesses come and go. In fact, he considered closing a few times himself. Once, he had a going-out-of-businesses sale that was so successful it allowed him to stay in business. But he admits the last year has been as hard on Bardstown Road as it has everywhere.
“This place is a magnet for small shops – beginners,” Wright says. “It’s sad, but more people fail than succeed when they open these little businesses. The problem right now is that there ain’t no business. The economy took a big hit and everyone crossed hobbies off of their budget.”
One problem for Highlands-area businesses is larger overhead than developing areas like Barret Avenue, where rents are cheaper. The owner of Objects of Desire, Julie Comer, says rent played a part in her decision to relocate from Bardstown Road to her current location at 803 East Market Street. “Rent wasn’t the only factor,” Comer says. “I was there for five years and my lease was fulfilled. I always felt that the rents being asked on Bardstown Road are disproportionate to the business that comes through the door.”
Jim Goodwin, a property manager with the Walter Wagner Jr. Company, says Highlands property values are more expensive than developing areas like East Market or Germantown, so landlords have to charge higher rents. Goodwin says there are basically two rental rates for Highlands properties – spots with parking and without parking. A location without parking will rent for about $10 a square foot. With parking, the same location would cost about $14 a square foot. But some landlords have charged up to $20 a square foot, depending on the location.
“It is very expensive to develop property in the Highlands,” Goodwin says, explaining that the Bardstown Road Overlay District is very particular about how things are done. “It cost $85,000 to put a parking lot behind Asiatique because it had to be designed a particular way.”
Goodwin, who was Rivera’s landlord, says Highlands rental property is still in high demand because of all the traffic along Bardstown Road. There is actually a waiting list for people interested in some of Goodwin’s properties. “Bardstown Road gets all the traffic, four times as much as Frankfort Avenue,” Goodwin says. “Traffic slows down during rush hour and that helps retail. There is not a 10 percent vacancy of buildings on Bardstown Road. I would be surprised if it was five percent. If there is a property that is always empty, that has more to do with the property owner than a decrease of interest in Bardstown Road.”
Chuck Swanson says the Highlands has already completed a gentrification process, whereas other neighborhoods are just beginning to attract the type of businesses that once would have located exclusively on Bardstown Road. Swanson recently closed the Swanson Cralle Gallery at 1377 Bardstown Road to focus on Swanson Reed Contemporary, which he opened at 638 East Market Street. He says the Nulu neighborhood on East Market is going through the same cycle that Bardstown Road did in the 1980s when small businesses flocked to it for the cheap rents. As the Highlands business corridor became successful, property values and rents in the area increased. Swanson, who opened his Bardstown Road gallery in 1982, says in the few years that he has been on East Market Street the rents have doubled. When Swanson Reed Contemporary opened in 1998, Swanson’s rent was about $1,000, and even cheaper once he bought the building. Reed says the landlord of a property close to his gallery on East Market is now asking nearly $2,000 a month.
For small businesses that can afford to be on Bardstown Road, success can vary from block to block. Will Russell, owner of the Why Louisville store at 1583 Bardstown Road, says his business picked up dramatically when he moved to his current location about five years ago. Originally his store was in the 1600 block, not far from Wright’s Highlands Records. Russell says moving just 50 feet has been like night and day. “You could hear crickets at the old location. I think it has a lot to do with all the restaurants on this block. Our store is more visible here and people come in and browse while they wait for a table or on the way to their car.”
Sally Bird, the owner of Dot Fox at 1567 Bardstown Road, agrees that being near a successful restaurant does help the independent business owner on Bardstown Road. Dot Fox and Why Louisville are located near Za’s Pizza, Cumberland Brews and Cafe 360, as well as Seviche, which is expanding its location. Bird says ear X-tacy records was also a major draw to the area and that she has felt traffic decrease a little since it moved to a smaller location further down Bardstown Road near Douglass Loop. The record store’s old location is being renovated to make room for a Panera Bread.
“For a lot of people who aren’t from Louisville, Bardstown Road is the city,” Bird says. “I don’t think that has changed. Hotel concierges are ready to send people to Bardstown Road before The Summit or anywhere else. The development of East Market Street and Clifton are both products of the gentrification of Bardstown Road. Some businesses are moving there because it is cheaper, and kudos to them. I don’t think it takes away from Bardstown Road at all.”