The last month for Durham's burgeoning retail scene suddenly suggested a worrisome trend.
In May, Nice Price Books went out of business on Broad Street. And then, in mid-June, the excellent downtown wine shop Cave Taureau, situated on the ring of the Five Points intersection for the last four years, slashed prices and announced its own imminent departure, citing an impending rent increase and slumping sales. Were there too many stores for too few customers?
Alongside Duke's east campus, Nice Price was at the end of a sixteen-year run, its owner ready to retire. But Cave Taureau was just getting started, with shelves full of a wide variety of wines and bitters and beers, thoughtfully stocked by owner Noel Sherr. When Cave Taureau opened in November 2012, Sherr and his wife, Marie, and their two business partners knew they were taking a substantial risk. But Cave Taureau quickly attracted new business as a relatively early adopter of downtown Durham's retail possibilities.
"Downtown Durham was starting to get the energy. We wanted to be part of the revival," Sherr says, noting that Cave Taureau carried many of the food-friendly wines featured in nearby restaurants that could be hard to find in other shops. "We felt like what we were doing belonged here."
But as downtown's parking crunch escalated, sales declined. Then Cave Taureau's building was sold, which means a sharp increase in rent when the current lease ends in 2017. The new owner will need to charge market rate for the storefront space, and the downtown Durham landscape has changed radically in four years.
Sherr made the decision to exit now rather than risk more losses. He's "not happy losing money," he says, philosophically, "but I'm zero percent regretful."
Although Cave Taureau couldn't stay afloat, its arrival downtown represented a mission statement of sorts: that independent merchants—passionate and knowledgeable about their goods—wanted to be part of a rejuvenated city center's magnetism.
The acclaimed Durham restaurant boom has largely fueled the downtown renaissance. Five years ago, downtown was mostly empty after dark. Now, it bustles almost every night, but that's not quite enough, the core's new retailers agree.
"We need to give people something to do during the day," says Jennings Brody, who owns Chet Miller, the handsome, superbly selected gifts and furnishings emporium on Parrish Street. A decade ago, she opened the food retailer Parker & Otis a half mile away, and she will soon launch Tiny, a children's store, in the space beside Chet Miller. "When you come to a city, you can't eat the whole time."
Brody's retail gamble with Chet Miller is part of a new wave of commerce meant to follow those restaurants.
"Retail is inevitable," says Gabriel Eng-Goetz, who owns Runaway, a new fashion and lifestyle boutique beneath the 21C Museum Hotel on Main Street. "People don't really come downtown to shop." But they will, he hopes. "It's definitely a risk," he says, "but it's a calculated one."
Part of that calculation is feel. Downtown retailers frequently use words like "energy" and "vibe," suggesting a spirit they want to tap into and feed, even if it means waiting for an increase in sustainable residential and tourist density, the latter already higher thanks to the arrival of 21C and the Durham Hotel.
"This block has really good juju," says Brody, standing on Parrish Street.