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Just a Few Day After Small Business Saturday, Metropolis Books to Turn Four

By Eric Richardson
Published: Tuesday, November 23, 2010, at 01:06PM
Julie Swayze of Metropolis Books Mikey Wally

Julie Swayze sits inside Metropolis Books, the Main Street store that she and husband Steven Bowie opened on December 1, 2006.

There weren’t many retail stores on Main Street when Julie Swayze opened Metropolis Books four years ago.

She decided to take the plunge anyway, opening up the store with husband Steven Bowie on December 1, 2006.

Where a larger retailer might have seen an untested and risky market, Swayze saw an opportunity. “I think you build loyalty from being first,” she says.

While news like October’s signing of mega-retailer Target for the 7+Fig shopping complex is momentous for Downtown, small businesses have provided a backbone for the revitalization taking place at the street level in Downtown.

In support of those efforts, a group led by American Express has declared November 27 the country’s first “Small Business Saturday,” a day where shoppers are encouraged to seek out neighborhood shops and restaurants.

The event comes one day after “Black Friday,” a shopping phenomenon focused on big retailers and outrageous specials.

Swayze came from that corporate retail world, launching stores for Pier 1 Imports and working as a buyer for Robinsons-May.

In the corporate world, Swayze was used to store opening decisions that were made by capturing zip code data from shoppers at an existing store. If enough buyers were making their way over from a certain area, that’s where the next store would go. “There really isn’t a lot of risk,” she explains.

In opening her bookstore, she had to make a decision that was based more on instinct. While Swayze had followed Downtown’s development since the opening of the San Fernando Lofts at 4th and Main, it wasn’t a market that lent itself to the same sort of data.

“You have to just throw a little bit of caution to the wind, because you just don’t know,” she says. “You just have to say ‘We’ll just have to try it out and see.’”

That decision made life a little easier for Jim and Celia Winstead when they and partner James Adams decided to open art and architecture supply store Raw Materials two doors up Main Street. “It was certainly encouraging to be able to look around and see Julie making a go of it,” says Jim Winstead.

Their store is now celebrating its own two-year anniversary.

Both Swayze and the Winsteads feel that an important part of their success is the personal attention that they are able to give to neighborhood customers.

“This is where you call someone and say ‘Here is a book that I think you’d like’ or ‘Here’s the next one in the series and it’s on order for you,’” Swayze notes. “We’re eclectic and different and doing it opposite of the chains.”

That uniqueness can also be appealing to those from elsewhere. “Shopping is a very popular activity for visitors,” explains Carol Martinez, a spokeswoman for LA Inc., the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The unique, one-of-a-kind stores are part of what makes L.A. so appealing to people.” The organization is one of the supporters of Saturday’s event.

Of course, being small also means that a lot is demanded of the store owner. “With mom and pop, you’re the face of the business,” Swayze says. “You always have to be on. You always have to be courteous.”

“That’s what’s tough about being a business owner. You just have to realize it’s all you.”

Still, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“My dream is not to grow [Metropolis] into a box chain. It’s to keep it small and boutique.” Her plans don’t end up with a store that has dozens of employees, either. “That wasn’t why I went into business. I came from that world.”

“I’m much less stressed running my own business,” she says. “It’s funny, because being here is like being at home. It’s like it is an extension of my living room. I feel really strange when I’m not here.”

In its promotional materials for Small Business Saturday, American Express talks about the role that mom and pop shops play in local economies. The company cites a research firm’s claim that $68 of each $100 spent at a local small business is returned to the community.

The message appears to be resonating with consumers. A Facebook page for the event had nearly 900,000 fans as of press time on Tuesday morning.

Asked about her goals for the store, Swayze speaks of ambitions that are just as much about getting Downtown attention as they are about seeing profit for her store. “In 2011, that would be definitely our goal, to get someone here that you would just think, ‘They’re in Downtown? They’re doing a book signing in Downtown?’”

While it may not be the splashy event she’s hoping to create, the store’s event during the December Downtown Art Walk should at least be loud. Metropolis will be hosting a book signing event for “The Man on the Ladder,” a book that chronicles 40 years of Dr. Arthur C. Bartner and his direction of the USC Spirit of Troy Marching Band. Members of the band will be present, though “not the whole band,” Swayze is quick to note.

The Art Walk has played an important role in fostering businesses on Main and Spring streets, and Celia Winstead says that even temporary retailers have played an important role in the neighborhood’s development. “These pop-ups have been doing a great job of introducing people to the neighborhood,” she says.

In the end, though, it is those people who live nearby that both stores are most trying to serve. That’s a relationship that they hope works both ways. “I wonder sometime if people take existing businesses for granted,” Celia Winstead says. “If you love this neighborhood, what is it about it that makes it special?”

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