The building that houses Beehive Gifts at 114 S. Main Street in Harrodsburg has stood since before Abraham Lincoln took office in Washington D.C. But, during a recent visit, the calendar on the wall read Dec. 24, 2010. The days of Main Street being the center of the commercial universe for small town America are long gone, but the same hope of entrepreneurship thrives.
“People are always telling me how much they love Main Street,” said Shirley Sprague, who, along with her husband Jim, owns Beehive Gifts in Harrodsburg. “However, not everyone who tells me that always shops here on Main Street and that’s a little disappointing.”
Sprague admits business is down over the last 10 years, and when she says “down,” she means it.
“Since the years 2000 and 2001, I’d say sales have been cut in half,” said Sprague, noting this year’s sales are off 15 percent from just last year.
But its not all doom and gloom as the Spragues consider themselves among the lucky ones. Jim is a retired teacher from Boyle County, and Shirley is a retired director for a data center in Lexington. Unlike some, at least they have a pension to rely on.
“You turn on the TV and some reporter tries to tell us how business is up as of late and how Christmas Eve is supposed to be the best shopping day of the year,” she said.
While that might be the case with some stores in the bigger cities, according to Sprague, it’s certainly not the case in this particular shop of Main Street. She also believes the big numbers touted by the talking heads could simply be a case of not necessarily false, but misdirected optimism.
“I don’t believe them when they say things are better now. But, Jim and I do believe they will get better eventually.”
Despite the downturn in business, the Spragues are in it for the long haul.
“We happen to own this building which was built in 1860,” said Shirley Sprague. “And, like other store owners on Main Street we are members of the Downtown Business Association.”
According to its members, the association believes more competition, at least on Main Street itself, is one way to get more folks shopping on Main Street.
“The group also realizes the historic significance of Main Street and takes steps to not only preserve the beauty of this street but make little improvements whenever we can,” she said.
This can take the form of flowers in the springtime and various decorations in the winter. It’s the little details that distinguish the shops from their big retail counterparts.
Just then, Harrodsburg residents Tim Burrows and Chuck Simmons entered Beehive Gifts.
“I’ve been to four different places trying to find this certain candle that my wife is crazy about,” said Burrows.
“Don’t tell me — Candleberry, Hot Maple Toddy.” Sprague responded.
“That’s it,” said a delighted Burrows.
Both men went on to purchase Candleberrys, which Sprague said is her best seller.
It was as if each man had discovered a little secret right here in their own backyards.
“It’s the smaller places like this that seem to always be able to help you out,” Simmons observed.
Danville’s Maple Tree Gallery has been in existence for more than 25 years, but it wasn’t until May of 2006 that Julie Nelson and her husband, Ben, got into the game.
“2007 was our best year,” says Julie, “and then the financial crisis hit.”
The Wall Street Journal states that between 2007 and 2009, more than 7.3 million Americans lost their jobs while private citizens lost 21 percent of their net worth. Many financial experts have deemed the recent economic crises as the most perilous since the Great Depression of 1929.
The Nelsons, like the Spragues, have taken an approach that more competition, not less, may be one answer to revitalizing Danville’s historic Main Street.
“This year alone, we welcomed four new retail businesses and four new restaurants to our downtown community,” said Julie Nelson. “Not only does this add energy and vitality to our downtown community, but benefits all of us financially.”
Maple Tree specializes in gift items, home accessories, custom framing and lamp repair. Customers also marvel at the artwork hanging on the walls, which is for sale.
Julie Nelson wants locals and tourists alike to visit Main Street, even if they have no intention of shopping at Maple Tree Gallery.
“You’d be surprised how many people walk by, look in the window, come in,” she said.
Nelson believes “diversity of shopping and dining” is the key to a vibrant downtown.
“I love it when one of my customers talks about shopping the various venues downtown, along with grabbing a bite to eat,” she said.
Another essential Nelson touts when running a store on Main Street is membership in a local group in which fellow merchants can do everything from network, seek business advice and just talk shop.
Julie Wagner is executive director of the Heart of Danville Main Street Program and is proud of the fact that every independent shop owner on Danville’s Main Street is a member.
“Having an organization specifically designed to lend their collective expertise is not only practical,” said Wagner, “but is a source of pride.”
Strength in numbers can also promote legislation which, in turn, can benefit Main Street as a whole.
“We were in a position where the law at one time prohibited restaurants from serving alcohol unless they could seat 100 people,” Wagner said. “But once we helped get the law changed we got four restaurants in one year.”
This, in turn, brought more of a night life, which translates into more pedestrian traffic, which results in more people shopping on Danville’s Main Street.
“It turned out to help not only restaurant owners, but everyone else,” Wagner noted. But Heart of Danville hardly wants to stop there. “We’d like to see what I call more of a cool funky vibe, which I envision as outdoor dining with various establishments featuring different types of live music.”
The energy Wagner and Nelson are talking about is something Dean remembers well about her early days in Harrodsburg.
“In my day, Main Street was more than just a place to go buy something. It was a social event. Some folks would come Saturday morning and stay all day. Some of the grocery stores were open till 11 p.m.,” Dean recalled.
Lonnie Napier, owner of Napier Brothers Clothing in downtown Lancaster, wasn’t born until the 1940s, so he didn’t see the 1930’s. Napier, however, recalls stories about the old days when his dad, John, ran a General Store in Cartersville. Like many general stores of the day, John sold everything from groceries to shoes to a box of nails.
“My dad remembered well The Great Depression, so when he started his business, in the early 1950’s, he did everything imaginable to make sure he wouldn’t fail.”
Napier still envisions his dad sweeping the floors at 6 a.m., then staying at work to after 9 p.m.
Napier, who has also served in the state legislature’s 36th district since 1985, speaks often of his father. “Dad said that when that customer comes through your front door, they’re doing you a favor,” said Napier. “Give them great merchandise at the best price, and if you don’t have what they’re looking for, either get it for them or tell them exactly where else they can get it.”
Napier Brothers has been a fixture in Lancaster since 1989, so the store’s proprietor has built a following that’s somewhat insulated himself from the recent economic downturn.
“Carhartt is my best seller,” said Napier, “but I’m just as proud to carry Red Wing Shoes and Hardwick.”
“We want this store to have a certain feel,” he continued. “And this is very important: We want a modern store in which the customer feels as if he or she is shopping in an establishment from 100 years ago.”
But Napier conceded that the past year has not been his best. And he’s seen other business owners have to close.
“It’s hard to put into words how difficult it is to see one of your neighbors lose his business,” he said, turning away and refolding a shirt that he just folded moments ago. “Someone spends his, or her, entire life trying to build a business and then they have to close shop. It breaks your heart.”
Like Sprague in Harrodsburg and Nelson in Danville, Napier would like to see more businesses downtown, even if it’s someone selling a similar product.
“If another clothing store opened next door, I’d grab a hammer and help them build it.” he said. “It is a rather simple equation — business breeds business.”
In Liberty, it was a creative approach on the part of local government that helped inspire one new business on Main Street. Thanks to an incentive program offering free rent through the local Economic Development Board, the Raspberry Zebra opened in October of 2009.
At Raspberry Zebra, part-time entrepreneurs and full-time moms Stacey Beeler, Jennifer Phillips, Tracie Hoskins, Nikki Wright, Tammy Hoskins and Stephanie Floyd took advantage of the program to get their business off the ground.
“We’ve actually seen an increase in sales in our last eight months when compared to the first 15,” said Beeler. “People seem to appreciate the one-on-one customer service and atmosphere of downtown shopping.”
The shop carries new and specialty clothing for adults, personal items, baby gifts, jewelry, children’s educational products, purses and accessories.
“Essentially,” says Beeler, “you can pick up unique products that you can not get anywhere else.”
In Stanford, Amish items are among the merchandise at Your Village Shoppe, a store that gives local artists and others an outlet for creations such as jewelry, wood carvings, paintings, quilts and food.
“Enter this shop and you’ve still not entered the shop,” said owner Robert Muse, explaining that the large space is carved into 12 sections that give creative individuals a commercial outlet.
The section around the cash register is dedicated to “primitives,” described by aficionados as high quality folk art. “People come from miles away just to buy these,” said Muse. “But this is hardly all we sell.”
Indeed, the crowd that gathered on this day was awestruck by the selection of products that were almost all made by local craftspeople and artists.
This is Main Street in 2011 in central Kentucky. No doubt it’s taken a different form in the last eight decades, but the spirit and original buildings remain largely the same.
Even Mercer County’s Louise Dean admits to not spending as much money on Main Street as she did in its heyday. Of course, these were the days before massive super market chains, malls the size of small towns, Internet shopping and Walmart.
“I’d say my parents spent about $9 out of every $10 on Main Street,” said Dean, who probably spends only about $1 out of every $10 on Main Street now.
But Dean is still a fixture on Harrodsburg’s Main Street where she often shares her stories at The Kentucky Fudge Co.
The lunch shop is in one of the original drug stores that Dean remembers as a little girl. Same building, different theme. In that sense, Main Street is still very much open for business.