Established business owners talk about livelihood
By Michael Turton
They are the voice of experience — Main Street Cold Spring’s veteran business owners who have managed to keep their doors open despite studies that show up to 90 percent of businesses fail in the first year. Their stories are of persistence, creativity and hard work.
Leonora Burton, proprietor of The Country Goose, set up shop in 1986 after coming here from South Wales, via New York City. While many local business owners cringe at the thought of winter, Burton, whose store literally offers up everything from soup to nuts, is an exception.
“With the gift baskets I don’t really have an off-season,” she said. “I persuade a lot of corporate clients to send baskets in January.” Valentine’s Day, Easter and other holidays are a boon to “off-season” sales. “I love it every time Hallmark comes up with a new holiday,” she said. Burton thinks her support of other local entrepreneurs has also helped. Goods include locally roasted coffee and locally produced items — from books, CDs, preserves and biscotti to children’s clothes, blankets and toys.
Burton sees one big challenge to doing business on Main Street. “Honestly, it’s the way the police mark tires and give out tickets,” she said. “People tell me they’re not coming back.” She bristles over what she thinks is a blind eye being turned to sidewalk sales that violate local laws while parking is strictly enforced.
She enjoys a large local customer base but has seen a change in clientele. Young people now routinely enter her shop while gazing intently into various electronic devices. “They aren’t that interested,” she said. “I think the generation coming up is going to make it difficult for small shops.”
Her advice to new business owners is simple. “Stick to it,” she says. “When I first started I knew nothing about retail.”
A treacherous winter
Kismet, formerly Payning by Caryn, was established in 2000 by Caryn Cannova who came to Cold Spring after retiring as a dancer in New York City. She is still reeling from the past winter, which she described as “treacherous” for business. “You can’t combat the weather,” she said. “I didn’t do in the first five months what I usually do in January.” She is seeking her real estate license to help make up some of her losses.
Never one to stay pat, Cannova said that “I do everything possible to make my store aesthetically pleasing.” During the recent tough economy she expanded her hours rather than cut back. “You also have to reinvent yourself,” she said. She created Kismet’s Secret Garden, an outdoor space for children decorated with flowers, brightly colored chairs, gnomes and fairies. She rents the garden out for special events. Visitors can also take photos of their children peeking through the face of a gnome or a fairy — for a small fee.
Cannova also thinks Main Street business has changed. “Customers are less affluent. You don’t see as many BMWs and Audis.” She feels that overlap in Main Street merchandise is a problem that started about four years ago. On the other hand, the owner of a jewelry store that will open soon at the corner of Main and Kemble paid her a visit recently to ensure that her merchandise wouldn’t duplicate Kismet’s. “That was awesome,” Cannova said. She says that other new businesses can learn from that example. “Find your own niche, one that’s not already here, and stick to it. And have a sense of community — don’t be a Lone Ranger.”
Twenty-nine years and counting
While visiting Newburgh around 1980, Tom Rolston happened into Cold Spring; he liked it so much he stayed. Next year will mark the 30th year for his restaurant, The Depot. “Weather is the biggest problem for businesses in Cold Spring,” he said. “If it rains all weekend it destroys business.” Winters are a challenge, too, but after 29 of them Rolston has a well-practiced strategy. “A lot of our employees go back to school, there’s less payroll and we cut things back,” he explained. “Business in winter isn’t that bad.” Dinner specials such as “steak night” and “pasta night” are a trademark of The Depot’s weeknight winter menu, designed to appeal to local residents. His clientele is a “good mix of locals and tourists” although like others Rolston said his customer base has changed. “They used to be very young — from 18 and up when that was the drinking age … now our customers are mainly 30 years and up.” Many come back. “We get a lot of repeats from northern Jersey, Yorktown, Mahopac and Poughkeepsie. And a lot of people take the train.”
Rolston has ideas about what would help local businesses. “Get that trolley sorted out. It’s a wasted piece of equipment — no one rides it,” he said, referring to the green trolley operated by Putnam County on weekends throughout the tourist season. “And parking now is the worst it’s ever been.” He said it was a mistake for the village to eliminate the parking enforcement officer who, he said, “kept some semblance of order” on Main Street.
He also has thoughts for new business owners. “Sell only what people can carry; be consistent with your hours and probably the most important thing: Get involved with the community.”
A Main Street rarity
Carolyn Merante, owner of Carolyn’s Flower Shoppe, is a rarity among Main Street business owners. She comes from Cold Spring. “I was born and raised here — and so was my dad,” she said. “And my husband [John] too.” Merante and her father opened the flower shop in 1976. Winter does not pose a challenge. “I have all the holidays … and people still die in winter,” she said, adding that funerals have always been a significant part of her business. Merante is also one of very few local shopkeepers with no complaint about parking — thanks to the store’s large parking lot. She, too, has seen change. “A lot of people used to buy flats of annual flowers,” she said. “I sell hardly any now.”
Big stores changed things. “You can’t compete with Home Depot and Walmart,” she said. The key to her success over almost four decades? “You have to be persistent and you have to be here. I’m here from 9 to 5, Monday through Saturday.” She isn’t envious of young new business owners. “Times are tough,” she said. “I’m planning for retirement in the near future.”
Selling an experience
The Pig Hill Inn is a Cold Spring bed-and-breakfast. Unlike many of her fellow business owners, Vera Keil didn’t move to Cold Spring to set up shop. “We moved here in 1978 because I wanted my son to be born here. I didn’t buy the inn until 1998.” A native of Prague, in the Czech Republic, Keil describes the inn’s peak season of April through November as “crazy.” As for winter, “We kind of look forward to it,” she said. She explained that the inn still books to capacity on weekends, but the slower weekdays are a time to catch up on work that can’t be done during peak period. Location has been a big plus. “We’re very fortunate to be so close to the train. It’s a big advantage,” she said.
Marketing has been a major factor in success. Keil said she sells an experience — an atmosphere that is “friendly and cozy, with great breakfasts and a staff willing to do almost anything for guests,” offering a place very different from a hotel. “People think of our inn as a home away from home.” That comfort-level means repeat customers. “Some people come here four or five times a year,” Keil said. Repeat business also means good word-of-mouth promotion. “It’s the best advertising you can get,” she said. Keil also pointed to the inn’s website and consistent, positive reviews on BedandBreakfast.com and Trip Advisor as being very helpful.
For Keil, there is no magic to success. “You have to work hard, be dedicated and friendly. Basically you just have to treat people the way you’d like to be treated.”
Photo by M. Turton