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No golden parachute for stores on Piedmont Avenue

Published February 9, 2009 on Oakland North

Loren Partridge has until February 28th to vacate Cunningham Partridge Gallery and Framing, the Piedmont Avenue business she ran for seven years.

“I’ve seen it coming for months,” said Partridge last Saturday afternoon. “Then January came, and boom.”

Inside the store, stacks of cardboard boxes stood piled against the wall next to empty frame display racks. In the front window, Partridge displayed one of her paintings: a pile of stones engraved with the letters “R.I.P.” and a “Going Out of Business” sign stuck on top; overhead, a red-haired woman flies through the sky carrying her dog.

Partridge, the real-life counterpart to the red-haired woman in the painting, experienced ups and downs over her years in business; but nothing like the past six months. “It’s been very, very, very difficult,” she said. “I have regular customers, but nobody is spending money. I may have to haul everything out on the street and say ‘here you go.'”

People filed in and out of her shop paying condolences and they all talked about the same thing: all the store closings on Piedmont Avenue. Partridge’s shop will be the twelfth store to close on the street in the last six months. Clothing shops, restaurants, antique sellers — some of which have been around for decades — have all gone out of business.

Most of the stores are “mom and pop” shops whose owners feel are more than just retail businesses. “My mom owns A Step Forward, her whole life is that store,” said local resident Jens Dahl-Jensen. “A lot of the merchants aren’t getting rich, they’re getting by. When there’s a recession on top – it can put people out of business.”

Piedmont Stationers, an independent stationery and office supply store, closed this past month after 20 years. In a note pasted on the now-empty storefront, owner Shelly Lowe wrote, “ultimately, we didn’t have the resources that Wall Street firms, banks and the rest have access to. And there is no golden parachute at Piedmont Stationers.”

Piedmont Avenue is one of many shopping districts across the nation whose businesses are falling victim to the recession. The National Association of Realtors predicts that retail vacancy rate will continue to grow throughout 2009, hitting near 13 percent in the third quarter, up from 9.8 percent in the third quarter of 2008. They attribute this to a decline in consumer spending.

Compounding the problem for business-owners is the fact that most realtors are unwilling to lower rents. Commercial leases generally lock landlords into long-term agreements, if the economy starts to get better, the landlords would have to operate at a loss.

Marilyn Gardunio, owner of JB Turner, a kitchen and bath remodeling store, recently left the storefront she had leased for 25 years; she decided to buy her own space. Now, she doesn’t have to worry about paying a landlord.

“In ’85, ’86, ’87, with the fires, the earthquakes, and the recessions, you could tell it would be alright; but with this one, it’s different,” she said. “Everyone is being very cautious. If they [the customers] don’t need, they don’t buy.”

Late in the afternoon, a customer walked into Cunningham Partridge Gallery and Framing to commiserate with Partridge, telling her how she lost her job and is now living on unemployment and savings.

“I have no savings,” Partridge replied. “I don’t want to be a bag lady; I’m very worried. I have an apartment, how do I pay for it? Will I get another job? Will it pay for the debts I have from here?”

The customer left the store without buying anything, but promised, “If I come up with any money, I’ll be back before the 28th.”

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