[OPINION] Main Street’s Landlord

By Bert Stratton

The New York Times

Cleveland Heights, Ohio

(Editor’s note: Stratton is Jordan Rose’s uncle)

For all the attention it’s getting from our presidential contenders, Main Street has it tough right now.

I own 30 storefronts — mostly prewar retail shops, with apartments upstairs — in a suburb near Cleveland. Along Detroit Avenue, from West 117th to West Clifton, more and more of my small commercial tenants are going out of business. CoStar, a real estate information firm, reports the national retail vacancy rate at 6.9 percent, but much of that is malls, “lifestyle” centers and strip centers with supermarkets. There aren’t specific numbers for the mom and pops, for Main Street.

Since 2000, median household income in Ohio plunged from 19th to 39th among the states. If no one is earning, no one is buying, and then who can afford to rent my storefronts? The Internet knocked out several flower shops in town. One of my tenants resold children’s toys. When her shop went out of business, she left me a basement of Fisher-Price: broken schoolhouses, gas stations and school buses. Also, Little Tikes picnic tables and Big Wheels. I wish she had left me a Fisher-Price dump truck.

There are some new businesses in town. Quaker Steak and Lube moved in down the street from my properties. So did Five Guys, a national burger chain, and Eddie ’N Eddie, a local burger place.

Beer, fries, burgers, apple pie and bourbon: those are the key words on the latest awnings.

I’ll tell you what won’t work: I had a prospective tenant ask me if he could put in a terrarium store. “Customers design their own mini-terrariums,” he said. You can rent 1,000 square feet — basically an enormous shoe box — for $675 per month in Cleveland, but the terrarium man never called back.

Another prospect called and said two words: “Astrology, botanics.”

No thanks.

A prospect asked about a hookah and tobacco shop. I thought about that for a few seconds. I said, “Take another look at the store.” I stalled. I wanted a hardware store or a dry cleaner, a bar, a restaurant. Something that might survive.

The hookah man asked for a couple of months’ free rent. I said, “Sorry, I don’t want to rent to a hookah bar.”

One former tenant — an Eastern healing arts therapist — installed a shower in the basement; he moved in downstairs after a divorce. Coincidentally, a prospect recently called and asked if he could put a shower in the store.

“There is a shower! What kind of business do you have in mind?” I asked.

“A participatory art gallery.”

“Why the shower?”

“The artists cover themselves in paint.”

“Kind of like Jackson Pollock. People rolling on the floor?”

“You got it.”

That didn’t happen either.

I’ve gotten off-kilter inquiries for years. The difference is now I listen to the callers, at least for a few minutes. But terrariums, body painting and astrology are tough ways to go, particularly in a down market. Burgers, fries and beer. That’s the ticket.

I rent to the police. They have a neighborhood police office, a mini-station in a storefront. The neighborhood cop, Rick, rides a bike. Hometown America. The police chief just wrote, “Due to economic conditions we are no longer able to rent your storefront.” Special government discount — $625 a month — and that’s too much?


Burgers, fries and beer.

Don’t tell the nutritionists.

Bert Stratton is the author of the blog Klezmer Guy: Real Music and Real Estate.

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