Bohemian rhapsodies and business woes: Coventry routinely cycles through good times and bad

Tommy Fello is a true witness to all the ways Coventry Village has evolved over the years. He’s worked on Coventry since 1967 when he was 16 years old, and as the owner of Tommy’s Restaurant—a staple of Coventry (albeit in three different locations) since 1972—he has seen just about everything.

“I’ve seen a lot of things change on the street over the years,” Fello proclaims. “It’s a different climate now because these days being in business is so difficult with the Internet. Some businesses are thriving, some are getting choked out.”

Most merchants and Cleveland Heights city officials agree that Coventry is in a bit of a slump. Both In the 216 and Blush Boutique are closing their doors on Coventry this month, on the heels of Coventry cornerstones La Cave Du Vin and Big Fun shuttering last year. More than a half-dozen storefronts currently sit vacant, and merchants say foot traffic has been light.

 

Tommy Fello, owner of Tommy's Restaurant“Obviously, there has been some turnover in the past six to 12 months,” says Brian Anderson, Cleveland Heights business development manager. “It’s an opportunity for the next generation of small businesses and entrepreneurs.”

Suzanne DeGaetano of Mac’s Backs-Books on Coventry agrees with Anderson—having witnessed numerous waves of new businesses come and go since she co-opened the store with Jim McSherry back in 1982. “[The street] just came out of a great period where we had full occupancy,” she says. “We’ve seen a lot of these [ups and downs] over the years. It’s just part of the natural cycle.”

Fello believes the street’s walkability has played a big part in its enduring appeal and resilience. “That’s what Coventry thrived on—walking from one shop to another,” he explains. “People walked up [the street] not only to shop, but to see what’s going on.” He also points to another constant: The teamwork and friendships that solidify the merchants on the quarter-mile strip.

So what’s next for Cleveland Heights' storied street as it enters another state of flux? FreshWater spoke with numerous business owners to find out.



It takes a village

From its beginning in the late 1960s, Coventry Village has been an eclectic mix of bohemian artists, entrepreneurs, and community members working together to make the street what it is. Having persevered through numerous challenges over the years, that same group is now seeing the street through its latest struggle.

Tommy's opened as a small soda fountain in 1972. This is a photo of the restaurant's first location on the corner of Coventry and Euclid Heights Boulevard.Fello remembers Coventry in the 60s and 70s being rife with drugstores and anchors like Irv’s Deli (1959 to 1989) and Heights Hardware.

In April 1969, David Hazelwood—whom Fello says everyone called “Bill Jones"—started making leather sandals in the basement of the 1864 General Store at 1864 Coventry, owned by Morrie Leeds and his wife. Jones was known to measure a customer’s foot and then stay up all night crafting their sandals, and eventually took over the upstairs space when 1864 closed.

“It was the first mom-and-pop that initiated the street,” Fello recalls of Bill Jones Coventry Village Leather Shop. “He was a mainstay that brought everyone from everywhere to Coventry to see what was going on here. As the clientele changed, so did the street.”

By 1972, Fello had the chance to buy the seven-seat Fine Arts Confectionery soda shop where he worked as an employee. He learned three recipes from the Lebanese owners Fauze and Helen Saide (falafel, hummus, and baba ghanouj, which are still on the Tommy’s menu today) and sold milkshakes for 35 cents.

Rosa Ransom and owner Suzanne DeGaetano of Mac's Backs-Books From there, he continued to see more mom-and-pop shops opening on the street, as well as stores that still exist today. Tommy's, Mac’s Backs, the Grog Shop, Passport to Peru, Record Revolution, Grum’s Sub Shop, Sunshine Headquarters Too, and City Buddha are just a few of the merchants that have been mainstays on the street for decades.

Fello adds that the merchants have always had a reputation of helping each other out. He recalls everyone helping him rebuild his restaurant in 1977 when a fire destroyed his first location—the neighborhood came together to help while musician Alex Bevan played guitar.

“I have to say that the camaraderie in the 70s was off the charts,” says Fello. “It does still exist today in a special but different cohesiveness that continues to be a bond that reinforces the strength of our village.”

Struggles and setbacks


In recent years, many newer stores have added their unique talents to the mix, including Cleveland Candle Company in 2016 and Studio How-To in 2017. The already-popular Cilantro Taqueria opened this past January in the former Chipotle space on Euclid Heights Boulevard.

Yet large gaps remain. La Cave du Vin closed its doors in April 2018 after more than 20 years, and Big Fun closed in June 2018 when owner Steve Presser went on to open Sweeties Big Fun in the new Pinecrest development. The closure of two other anchors—American Apparel in 2017 and the Winking Lizard in 2016—also contributed to the decline. 



Though Seafood Shake has since taken over the Winking Lizard space, the Big Fun, La Cave du Vin, and American Apparel spaces still remain vacant.

“We’re definitely in a rough spot right now,” says Mallory Phillips, executive director of the Coventry Village Special Improvement District (SID). “Coventry is having a challenging time. Ever since Big Fun left, it’s been a turning point for the neighborhood. We’ve had a lot less traffic, it’s been a lot less of a destination.”

In The 216 owner
 Jenny Goe closed her Coventry location earlier this month after being there since 2015; she also plans to close her Gordon Square location by summer. Blush Boutique shuts the doors on Coventry this Saturday, March 30, after almost 10 years on the street. (Blush owner Laurie Klopper says her Chagrin Falls location will remain open.)

Klopper says she is sad to close the Coventry store, but business declined after Winking Lizard and Big Fun closed. “We can’t rely on regulars to go shop once a week, and I was getting almost no new buyers,” she says. “I was paying out of pocket [to keep the store running] and making zero dollars. It was my dream. I used to be a lawyer, and I live in Cleveland Heights. I like living here. I liked having my business here.”

Klopper didn’t feel like she got adequate support from the city, until she announced she was leaving, and she believes some of the landlords aren’t maintaining the properties well. “Landlords are perfectly fine to let buildings sit empty because they think they’ll get high rents,” she speculates. “Every day, I see a big, empty storefront across the street from me. It’s just going to get worse.”

Goe, who is closing primarily to focus on her health, says that in February she had her first day of zero sales. “That has never happened before—even in a blizzard,” she says. “In 2015, I was bonkers busy, it was fantastic. I’m sad to be leaving Coventry.”

The former La Cave Du Vin spaceGoe started to see a serious decline in pedestrian traffic in mid-2017. While she concedes that the winter months are always slow on Coventry, she says she made less than half the money this January than in January 2018. “Daytime traffic during the week is basically non-existent at this point,” she says.

The closing of La Cave du Vin hit In The 216 hard, Goe says, as the bar and Grog Shop channeled evening business to her shop. Last Valentine’s Day, In The 216 and La Cave du Vin together were featured in Cleveland Magazine as a great date night.

But with four empty spaces above her ground-level shop and empty storefronts throughout the rest of the street, Goe no longer feels that momentum and promise. “I just want Coventry to somehow try to rebuild without losing its identity,” she says.

Ready to regroup

Kathy Blackman, owner of the Grog Shop—which first opened in 1992 near the Coventry-Mayfield intersection and moved to the top of the street at Euclid Heights Boulevard in 2003—says that economic ups and downs are nothing new for Coventry.

The Grog ShopFor instance, Blackman says that in the early to mid-90s, retail presence was down, but restaurants were thriving. In more recent years, the pendulum swung, with retail picking up and less nightlife. Now, as the street shape-shifts once again, Blackman believes the recent “retail decline has been a domino effect. Unfortunately, when one big anchor [such as Big Fun] falls, the others have followed.”

Like Blackman, Anderson says the ebb and flow of merchants on the iconic strip is quite normal. “With Coventry, this is—to some degree—the normal organic turnover you see in a lot of our commercial districts,” he says, adding that he is confident that traffic will once again pick up as the existing long-term anchors continue to be a destination and a new batch of retailers enter the scene.

Grog Shop’s Blackman is also confident. “I know things will turn around, and I hope that young innovative business owners realize that this is a golden opportunity,” she says. “Our landlords are aware of the decline and want to turn it around.”

Blackman cites the upswing in places like Ohio City and Gordon Square as partially contributing to the downturn on Coventry, but believes it could ultimately revive the neighborhood as entrepreneurs seek more cost-effective options.

“People are being priced out on the near West Side, so send them East,” she urges. “We need some other anchor destination tenants so we can help boost each other. I live in the neighborhood and am raising my family here, so I need and want us to succeed.”


Paving the way for renewal

Cleveland Heights' Anderson speculates that the anchor businesses paired with a recent increase in experiential businesses (such as Cleveland Candle Company and Studio How-To) will eventually boost business on the street.

Like the departing businesses, Cleveland Candle Company president David Gin says they saw a decline when American Apparel left, but he feels good about his store's prospects. “The last year has been challenging because of some closings, and foot traffic is down 25 to 30 percent,” he says. “But business is good for the most part. We have a different model as far as people coming in.”



Customers can come in and make their own candles, and Gin says they have started partnering with other local businesses for combined workshop experiences. For instance, customers can make a candle and then stay to learn to make lip balm, cookies, or bath bombs—or even take a painting class. In April, Cleveland Candle will partner with Color Me Mine pottery studio in Pinecrest to make candles and shot glasses. Combined workshops cost between $35 and $50.

Studio How-To also offers workshops—such as beginner knitting or caring for succulents—along with private parties and classes.

Mac’s Backs has been working to engage the community since 1984, holding regular poetry readings and kids’ events. The store opens its meeting space to nonprofits free of charge, and hosts several book clubs. “It so easy for people to naturally gather [on Coventry],” says DeGaetano. “It’s a natural gathering spot. It just has an elusive attractiveness. We’ve got all the ingredients of a good, walking urban neighborhood.”

Record RevolutionTo capitalize on that strength, the Coventry SID has planned many upcoming events to support local businesses and draw people to the street. For instance, many merchants have committed to giving discounts to customers who show receipts from Record Revolution during Record Store Day on Saturday, April 13. Other special events include Coventry Kids Day this Sunday, March 31—where Cilantro Taqueria will be hitting the street with their taco cart—and Independent Bookstore Day on Saturday, April 27. 

Starting Friday, April 26, the Coventry SID will launch Final Fridays—an ongoing promotion the last Friday of the month during which stores will offer discounts. ARTFUL will help kick off the first Final Friday with an open drawing studio.

“We expect to build on this event over time and incentivize more people to come out to the Coventry neighborhood and discover how creative, unique and special this district is,” says ARTFUL executive director Shannon Morris.


Phillips says other plans for the street include painting a new mural on the former Big Fun storefront window, hosting a planting day to spruce up the street planters (designed and created by local artist Brynsley Tyrrell) for Mother’s Day, and organizing some evening events at Pekar Park at the top of Coventry.

Despite the slump, Phillips says the supportive environment on the street will see Coventry through this spell. “The people who come here are really dedicated to the area more than ever,” she says. “It’s beautiful to see how they support each other.”

 

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
Signup for Email Alerts