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With Expansions and New Leases, Princeton Is Taking Stock of Independent Businesses

This article was published in Town Topics May 9, 2007

There is a general rule in business: no matter how cutthroat, intimidating, or downright rude a competitor may be, that's the way it's going to be, and you need to deal with it, or go home.

If you haven't noticed, several independent businesses in Princeton Borough's Central Business District, are dealing with "it," and doing quite well, thank you very much.

But it's always going to be an uphill battle for an independent. Not to take anything away from the national chains and franchises that add to downtown Princeton's retail eclecticism, creating a major shopping draw on weekends, the independents seem to not only fill a market niche (how else would they survive?), but also a small-town ideal that Princeton shoppers still appreciate, including a yen for spotting the owner of a shop behind the register.

But aside from that Ma and Pop appeal, a handful of Princeton independents are doing fine. Last week, one of the busiest food establishments in town, Olives, located at 22 Witherspoon, completed a six-month expansion into the space that used to house a doublewide Mandalay, which has since downsized to 26 Witherspoon, and is doing quite well. Olives is an example of a 12-year business that has always been popular, but this expansion is likely to lift the eatery to into a new level of success. On top of that, Olives owner Adam Angelakis is has everything you want in a local business owner: hand shake, a greeting that makes you know you're there and appreciated, and, of course, the food is … well, just take a look at the line between noon and 1 p.m. on a weekday.

"Both my father and uncle have been through business for many years, and I've just followed in their footsteps," Mr. Angelakis said Monday, in front of gleaming new countertops, expanded display cases, and an interior overhaul designed by architect Terence Smith, who designed Triumph Brewing Company.

The Olives owner is not shy about the fact that there needs to be a good product to get good business, but he pointed to the Princeton clientele as one that appreciates a store like his. "If it wasn't for the people that live and work in this area, we wouldn't be able to offer these things — for years we were just a soup and sandwich shop, but now we can show people what we're really about."

And, Mr. Angelakis added, there needs to be that niche: "A unique product gets attention and will be appreciated."

But it is an uphill battle, and Olives represents a specific kind of independent retail. Just a block away at the Princeton Record Exchange, owner Barry Weisfeld, for years, has faced competition from Internet shopping, as well as the purchasing of digital music outright via online stores like iTunes. This poses an increasingly difficult challenge for music storeowners, who have actually seen one of the big-box stores, Tower Records, succumb to iffy management and competition in the last year.

But Mr. Weisfeld just finalized a multi-year contract extension for his location at 20 S. Tulane Street. Is he immune to the competition? Absolutely not, he said. "If you're a property owner, wouldn't you want to sign with something like a chain that would guarantee the terms of a lease?"

But again, the Record Exchange provides a niche in downtown Princeton, as well as a proven track record since opening in 1980. "This business is so complicated, but it can work in the right space, and we think we've figured a few things out along the way," Mr. Weisfeld said.

However, Princeton is still mourning the loss of Micawber Books, which was, for all intents and purposes, a poster child for successful independent local business. While Micawber owners made clear that the store's closing was deliberate, rather than a slow decay in the shadow of the Internet and large-scale bookstores, the loss was felt by some business owners. Micawber's ultimate replacement, Labyrinth Books, an independent chain with three locations, should bring some independent equilibrium back to that part of Nassau Street, right next to fellow indies Forest Jewelers and Landau.

It should be noted that Princeton University, which conducted the search and was ultimately responsible for Labyrinth coming to Princeton to sell student texts as well as other assorted titles, could have brought in a national chain. It didn't.

"They've been overly concerned if this move was going to be OK, and from our concern, it's been terrific," said Robert Landau, who owns Landau with his brother, Henry.

Mr. Landau added that bringing increased student foot traffic across Nassau Street could mean a boon for some shops in town, but warned that business owners should not relay too heavily on a comfortable customer base: "You've got to be competitive. You can say what you want about being independent, but if people can get a better deal someplace else, why not?"

That is largely what drives Hinkson's, at 28 Spring Street. The fact that a small office store can be competitive nowadays is rare, but they make it work. "We don't have the manpower or the advertising power, but we can help a customer regardless of a situation, including being price competitive.

"You won't find many Mom and Pop stationery stores anymore — they're just not there, but we have a niche in Princeton."

Whatever the formula, for these stores, it's worked and it's likely they're here to stay.


This Article was written by locally renowned writer Matthew Hersh and Published in the Town Topics on 05/09/07. We appreciate their attention to the local businesses of Princeton, and highly recommend Town Topics if you're interested in keeping up on Princeton news and events.


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