Sorry, We're Open

How some of Columbia's oldest businesses have preserved the city's originality

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As university students, lost in a sea of Chuck Taylors and Bean boots, it may be difficult to spot originality. Nestled in the historic infrastructures of Columbia, however, are independently owned businesses that epitomize the word “original.” These businesses have been offering Columbia residents original shopping, dining and learning experiences for more than two decades … But why are they being overshadowed by corporate names?

In the 102-year-old village neighborhood of Five Points, nearly 100 small businesses connect Blossom, Devine, Greene and Harden streets. These businesses help maintain the Five Points personality that we have all grown to know and love. What we often don’t know, however, is the history behind each storefront and its owner.

“The day I turned on the ‘open’ sign was the first day I worked in a restaurant,” says Lloyd Reese, co-owner of Blue Cactus Cafe on Greene Street. “You go with your strengths, and mine has always been ignorance. If you don’t know you can’t do something, you can do anything.”

And so, he did. Lloyd and his wife, Mary, have been running Blue Cactus since May 1994, serving loyal customers fresh, “arrogantly slow” Korean and Southwestern fare.

“Primarily, it’s hard to find original food,” Reese says. “Everyone who opens a restaurant wants to pull something out of the freezer, throw it in the oven, open a can of sauce and call it their signature dish.”

But Blue Cactus does something that other businesses may not. “Here, we cut it, we cook it, we serve it,” he says. “It tends to be slow … but it’s just like mama’s house: When it’s on the table, it’s ready. No shortcuts.”

As convenient as fast-casual and drive-thru chains have become, there is truly nothing like authentic, individually prepared dishes by business owners who care about their customers. So why do we continue to put these businesses on the back burner?

“With undergraduate students, unless it’s a dollar beer and pizza, they’re not that interested,” Reese jokes. “But here, it’s not a squat and gobble.”

Another reason is that we fear the unknown. More often than not, we would rather avoid an unpleasant experience than gain knowledge from it. This mindset, among other things, could negatively impact small businesses with unique attributes.

Take another Five Points staple, Gentleman’s Closet, for example. Gentleman’s Closet opened in 1999 and is Columbia’s only men’s consignment store. With competition from Men’s Warehouse about 100 yards down the road, 86-year-old owner Dean Ellison has described his business as “tough.”

“It’s tough to make a buck,” Ellison explains. “If you have more than half a dozen employees, you’ve got a tax problem. You have to pay half of their social security, you’ve got a lot of expenses … and the government hasn’t helped us in the past couple of years. They’ve just given us more to do. They’ve given us more paperwork, more requirements and just been more involved in our business.”

Reese agrees that the previous administration has made it difficult for small businesses to prosper. Not to mention the influx of large retail and restaurant corporations that took control of strip malls and other regions of Columbia such as Harbison and Forest Acres.

“If you’re a large operation, you have one person who handles all of the requirements,” Reese says. “If you’re a small place, you have to set aside so many hours each week to meet those requirements. Sometimes you don’t really understand what they want, so then they want to fine you. It’s at the point where they’re really trying to get rid of small people who take too much time for them to look at,” he continued.

For these reasons, small businesses have been closing left and right all across the country. If ever pressed for money, reasonable consumers would first cut back on spending at restaurants and retail stores, resulting in lost revenue for these mom-and-pop shops which, too, are pressed for money. The problem is that these longstanding businesses influence a city’s character over time.

“It really is a loss for America,” Reese says. “Small towns are drying up. As stores disappear, a lot of the personality disappears with them.”

Across the Gervais Street bridge is another brick-and-mortar business with a grandfather-like personality, one that quietly encourages you to pick up a book and read. Ed’s Editions on Meeting Street in West Columbia celebrated its 15th anniversary in 2016 as the premier buyer and seller of books that are then re-circulated through the city. The historic storefront is a temporary home to over 40,000 quality used and collectible books. Bookshelves pushing max capacity offer customers nearly 30 different genres of print books.

After a short decline during the eBook and Kindle era, Ed Albritton, co-owner of Ed’s Editions, noticed the resurgence of millennials who have returned to hard copy, an otherwise presumed “dying art.”

“The interesting thing about our customer base is that it’s a wide range, age-wise,” Albritton says. “A lot of our customers are older customers who have been with us since we opened, but what’s encouraging is the constant stream of students. We’re appealing to a sizable group.”

Albritton explains that the literature section sells well with students who are looking for required or supplemental reading at the university. Attorneys, young professionals, history and military buffs are also among customers who frequent the bookstore.

“We’ve always been selling on the internet, too,” Albritton continues. “About 40 percent of our sales are online. It’s an important part of our business now because I’m not sure we would survive without it.”

With online shopping on the rise, the small businesses in Columbia and around the U.S. may fear what’s in store for the future—no pun intended. Even prepared meal delivery services such as Blue Apron and HelloFresh have changed the way people grocery shop.

Regardless of the obstacles that small businesses face in changing times, however, it’s important to remember why business owners do what they do: customer satisfaction.

“Well, look around,” Albritton says. “I’m surrounded by books in a nice, comfortable setting and I get to do what I enjoy doing, which is working with people and helping others find something they are looking for.”

It’s strange that while there are so many alternative spots to shop, eat and learn in Columbia, students tend to visit the same four or five businesses in the area, many of which are franchises or corporate chains.

Again, the draw comes from familiarity. In every city you’ll find a Barnes and Noble—it’s an easy to locate, well-established corporation. But while we’ve become comfortable with these well-known companies, we may have forgotten about the unique storefronts and history-rich small businesses next door. 

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