Niche retailers face challenges, relish sense of community in Abilene

PHOTOS BY Nellie Doneva/Reporter-NewsJames Belk browses the collection of music at Record Guys on Wednesday.

Photo by Nellie Doneva

PHOTOS BY Nellie Doneva/Reporter-News
James Belk browses the collection of music at Record Guys on Wednesday.

Jon Howell (right), co-owner of Record Guys, sorts through records he just bought Wednesday.

Photo by Nellie Doneva

Jon Howell (right), co-owner of Record Guys, sorts through records he just bought Wednesday.

Gordon Washington sold not only comic books, but also a sense of community to action hero fans.

“This particular type of business, community is a huge thing,” said Washington, who in 2007 opened Premiere Comics on Catclaw Drive. “They really enjoyed the camaraderie of like-minded people.”

But Washington’s business couldn’t survive the recent economic downturn, and the store shut its doors last month.

Customers had cut back on purchases, Washington said. There were “just not enough dollars” to support the store, he said.

Other specialty retailers have enjoyed varying levels of success in Abilene. In a mid-sized city — and with competition both online and from larger, more established retailers — some niche retailers struggle to stay competitive.

Record Guys, 729 S. Leggett Drive, has managed to build sales, said Kevin Howell, who operates the shop with his sons Justin and Jon. The store opened about 10 years ago, Howell said.

“Our sales are up, as they have been for the last several years,” Howell said.

Customers “feel like they’re going to be treated special at our store,” Howell said. “They’re more than just a credit-card number at a website.”

While Washington said he didn’t think Internet sales siphoned away too much of his business, small retailers have been increasingly vocal about the effect of online retail.

Luke Legate, a spokesman for the Texas chapter of the Alliance for Main Street Fairness, said his group of retailers wants to pass national legislation that would mandate online retailers to collect sales taxes.

“With an 8.25 percent margin, it’s hard for stores to compete,” said Legate, referring to the sales tax imposed in most Texas cities.

But Washington said he didn’t think Internet sales had much to do with the closing of his business, which catered to “typically the 20-something-year-old guy.”

Another entrepreneur, Kim Clark, in November opened bra-te-da, a lingerie store in the Chimney Plaza Shopping Center on South 27th Street that she says focuses on providing customers with a proper bra fitting.

“I think the biggest challenge is just letting people know that we’re here, being that there’s not really another store like it. We specialize in custom-fit bras, and we carry sizes that no one else in town does,” said Clark.

She said she wasn’t worried about Internet sales, explaining that many of the brands she carries aren’t easily found online and generally aren’t discounted.

Even without online sales, specialty retailers work to develop a strong online and social media presence. Washington developed a website and used Facebook to better connect with customers, and Howell’s business also makes use of Facebook. Howell said it’s also important to be available for customers interested in chatting about records and music.

“That’s as important as getting the product to them,” Howell said.

“Our niche is not just what we sell,” Howell said. “Our niche is how we interact with the customers.”

Sandra Morgan opened Naughty Boutique at 2807 S. 14th St. about 18 months ago. Her shop features corsets and “sexier lingerie” than Victoria’s Secret, as well as shoes.

“Once they come in and realize it’s a store for ladies and it’s a classy store, that’s why they keep coming back,” Morgan said.

But she said she’s had trouble getting the word out on a limited budget.

“I think that’s the hardest thing, is letting people know what we are, getting people in and interested,” Morgan said.

Originally, Morgan said, she hoped to land a spot in the Mall of Abilene but it didn’t work out.

“It’s just hard to get a location in Abilene that’s good and affordable,” Morgan said.

For now, she relies on “a lot of word-of-mouth, a lot of repeat customers.” Morgan has recently advertised the business for sale, but said she has no plans to close the store anytime soon.

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