Two businesses in Winona join forces to survive the recessionby Sea Stachura, Minnesota Public Radio
Two small businesses in Winona have found a way to survive in this tough economic climate: They've moved in together. The Book Shelf and the Blue Heron cafe have become business roommates in order to stay afloat. Their arrangement has cut costs and increased sales.
Winona, Minn. — The entrance to the Blue Heron Cafe and the Book Shelf is guarded by a six foot tall painted heron. Open the door and you're greeted by a bright cafe. A half wall divides it from the bookstore. During the lunch hour rush a few people are wandering over to the books from the counter at the cafe.
Like the rest of the state, Winona has been hit by the recession. Two major employers, TRW and Herf Jones Photography laid off nearly 200 workers each last year. State officials say most businesses are laying people off by the 10's and 20s, but they aren't closing.
The Blue Heron Restaurant is an exception. Last January it closed.
Larry Wolner and his wife, Colleen, own the cafe. A few years ago they decided to expand the cafe into a restaurant, he says. They helped renovate a building in downtown.
"The plan for the business was nice until we realized we were in a small market and it wasn't quite working out like we wanted to," Wolner pauses. "It was just kind of like, this is a train wreck and we're just going to get off."
Across town Chris Livingston was taking a hard look at his own business, the Book Shelf. Livingston had expanded his independent bookstore to sell textbooks to Winona State University students.
"We weren't very successful at that. After two years of trying to build that business we realized that we were actually losing money, or close to losing money. We had to make a decision as to whether we were going to replace the textbooks with something else or move the store. Our lease was coming due," he says.
By way of a coincidence that is only possible in a small town, Livingston knew of the Wolners and their Blue Heron Restaurant.
"This was my coffee shop. This is where I came every morning," he says.
The local food and pastries made from scratch were gone, and Livingston missed them. Livingston says he called Wolner about moving in together; Wolner says it was HE who called Livingston.
"He thought it was a great idea," Wolner says. "He wanted to move downtown, and things weren't working out well for him. Because being a small business dreams are plentiful, reality is something different. So, we struck a deal and it was easy to make the physical changes."
Each business cut costs by 50 percent.
It's commonplace to have a coffeeshop in a bookstore. But Chris Livingston says this arrangement is different.
"The space is not 80 percent bookstore and 20 percent coffeehouse. It's 50 percent bookstore, 50 percent coffee house. There is a lot of room to sit, eat, stay a while," he says.
Livingston didn't expect sales to increase initially. He was just glad to cut costs. However, his November and December book store sales were up 19 percent from the previous year.
"Having all of this additional foot traffic who are conditioned to come and they eat here everyday or every other day. And sometimes that's just a matter of someone coming in to get a cup of coffee and seeing the greeting card rack," he says.
The Blue Heron saw a slight dip during the holiday season. Larry Wolner says when the two businesses moved in together he expected some of that.
"We figured we'd lose a certain percentage of our business because we are smaller and we changed our hours, but checking the numbers we're really pretty close to what we were doing, but we don't have the overhead. That's the difference," he explains.
Both owners say committed customers are another part of staying afloat. This arrangement makes each business reliant on the other's success. That could be worrisome, but both owners are just happy to be in business. In this economy it's all about survival.
- Morning Edition, 01/29/2009, 7:40 a.m.