Sep 26, 2006

Sign Language

Store signage is an issue that needs to be addressed before you sign a lease. Welcome to part 4 of "business of boutiques" for those of you who are wanting or getting ready to open their first boutique. I am going to use my personal experience on the issue of singage.

When I first opened my store, I had street parking right in front of my store. But after over a year of hard work in establishing my business, the city had decided to revamp the streetscape and expand my narrow sidewalk out to twenty feet or more, add some plants and lightposts. Quaint right? Wrong! (This is a prime example of finding out about any city plans before you sign a lease - something I didn't know to do.) I no longer have parking in front of mystore, no place to load and unload inventory and worse, my customers (or rather, prospects - they aren't customers yet), while walking down from other local shops, not only do not see if I am open or not, they can't see my building at all because of the way the city redesigned the sidewalk. They assume as they walk down the sidewalk, that where the cars are able to park, is the last store and they turn around and go back.

Look at the photos and see for yourself. See how the store on the right appears to be the final store? To the left of that store, is the beginning of a busy intersection and thus no parking allowed along the street at that point. My store is at a very slight right angle beyond that store. You can't even see my awnings!

Now look at the next two photos. The top photo shows my "open" sign out on the sidewalk and at the a point, you can just see my black awnings on the right with my topiarytrees. Having that little open signout is the diffrence of having 20 customers walk in or only 4. Literally. I kept track on some days. But the city has an ordinance against portable signs. During
Christmas, we are allowed to put out signs but no other time. I did due diligence and approached the sign and review board, wrote letters, spoke with my alderman to get the ordinance changed. This is going on two years now! So, for a while, I just kept putting my sign out anyway because if I didn't, I would be out of business. But then our friendly city inspector, had nothing better to do than to watchand see if my sign was out, write me up, and I would be taken to court by the wonderful city of Maplewood. (Maplewood is two blocks from the St. Louis city limits.) So, I would spend my Monday nights, once a month in court, and pay a fine.This little routine of putting the sign out and then going to court was not my intention, but it got started because of Maplewood's ever so helpful, city inspector, fined me again on a Tuesday morning after I had just gone to court for the first time, the prior evening. Apparently what had happened was this: Monday night I go to court the first time, get fined, and am told to take my sign in. Tuesday morning, I had appointments all day and so I left a sticky note on my computer screen for my employee NOT to put the sign out (at that time I was still determined to change the ordinance and do things properly). My employee, comes in for the day, the sign is right next to the door, so as usual, she puts it out on the sidewalk, returns, turns on lights and makes her way to the computer where she sees my note and immediately goes out to remove the sign. A week later, I get a citation and I am livid because I know I did not have my sign out. I call up the city inspector, very adament that I have not put my sign out and he said I did on the following Tuesday morning. Upon questioning my employee, she had to even try to remember the events, and finally remembered that she did have it out for a total of 4 minutes. The inspector was waiting that morning to see if the sign was put out. When I explained this to him he replied, "yeah, I thought it was strange that you would just defy the judge's order and have the sign out." I then told him that if he would have taken a minute or two and came inside and just ask us what is going on, by the time he got out of his car, he would have seen the sign was returned inside. But no, he drives back to his office, writes me up, no phone call and I get to go to court yet again. Well, that was it. I was getting no help whatsovever from Maplewood about this issue. So every month I get a citation and every month I would go to court. All the time trying to get Maplewood to grant me a conditional use permit for my sign. Finally, one court session, the judge told me that if he sees me in his courtroom again, he will revoke my business license! That was Nov 2005.
I immediately went to my alderman's home, very upset that all I am trying to do is run my business and I can't seem to get help from anyone about this sign issue. My wonderful alderman said he would look into it. I was standing on his front porch at 8PM, in tears and just spent from having so much on my plate, trying to keep my business going after my husband just left me only 5 months prior and so, so, so tired from all the hours I was putting in. Finally, someone was going to help me!
I never heard a peep from him after that tearful night.
Well, Christmas comes and goes, and I am told "under the table" to keep my sign out and the city will look the other way while the ordinance is being revamped. I went to a meeting about the ordinance and voiced, publicly, the need for this change. I also stipulated many ways in which the ordinance will not work if the city council puts tight restrictions on theplacement, size, and so on simply because having a sign near my front door will do me no good. I also invited the council and review board to walk down the sidewalk and they will see what I am talking about. No one has.
So, now it is August 2006 and I get a letter from the cityhall telling me that an ordinance has been passed that allows a sign to hang from the building and that I need to remove my portable sign immediately. There are a couple of problems with this. One, I wasn't even notified that the ordinance was finally coming up for alderman didn't even notify me. Two, the signage hanging from my store does me no good whatsoever, and I made this clear in my public meeting, and three, even if the hanging sign would help me, it would take at least two months to get the sign approved, and the letter stated that I remove my sign immediately instead of stating that once I get approval of my new signage then remove my portable sign. Nope, had to do it that day. And I did.
So, I made many calls to the city manager, the alderman, chamber of commerce, the mayor and no one returned my messages. Finally, I called the president of the chamber at his workplace (a bank) and voiced my concerns, my anger, and how am I to stay in busienss if no one can even see my store? August was my WORST month ever since I opened my business. To this day, after almost 4 years of being open, I still get ladies who "found me" and they walk in all excited about what they see and they ask "how long have you been open?" And they are shocked when I tell them how long because they "have never seen the store before." Yes, I advertise, and yes, I get PR, but that does nothing for those who are just "walking" around and just shopping for the day and who don't know about the store "around the bend."
So, I finally get a call from my alderman after I left a message that was less than friendly. This is over a week later. The phone call did not go well at all. I asked him what exactly does it take to get a conditional use permit anyway? He said he would have to look into it because he didn't know. mean to tell me that this is Aug 2006 and since Nov 2005 you, my representative, haven't even looked into that? Especially after I was on your porch in tears needing help????? Basically, I told him he was worthless as a representative. He was very condescending in letting me know that there are other important matters in the city other than my sign. I was quick to let him know that this is not the first time I dealt with city government, and I am very aware of the issues, but we are going on two years with this sign problem and that is just inexcusable.
He said he didn't want to give me a conditional use permit because then "all the other stores will come rushing in with their conditions." I basically said, "so?" God forbid that the council actually do what they are voted in to do: help run the city and the businesses. I told him that I am not asking for special treatment, I just want to stay in business! I told him should he get a "rush of store owners" at city hall that the answer was very simple: If those store owners use to have front door parking and the city took it away, and if they also have a 20 foot wide sidewalk, then they too may have a portable sign. He said ordinances can't be written to satisfy everyone. Yes, of course Mr. Alderman, I am aware of that. That is why you have conditional use permits. I started to get very loud and bold on the phone and he tells me that if my "goal is to call me up and piss me off, then you met your goal." I said that I don't give a $#@ that he is pissed off because I have been pissed off for almost two years now. Then he tells me that my attitude doesn't want to make him jump through hoops to help me. And so I then ask him: "Are you saying that I need to kiss your ass to get help???" Of course he said "no." And I told him that is exactly what he is saying and that I have been "playing nice" for two years and have gotten no where, so why continue to be nice? I told him that I hate doing business this way (yelling) but if that is the only way to get something done, then I have to do that.
He then told me that there are other means of advertising - again very patronizing. I told him I have a budget for that and this is not about advertising this is about letting people know where I am located and that there is actually a business around the corner! He then admitted that he hasn't even walked down the sidewalk to see what I am talking about! By the way, Walmart moved in during this time, and it seems as though all the little cute boutiques in our town are not necessary least to the city's eyes. Maybe that explains why no one is willing to help out within a two year period? Needless to say, it got ugly but he said he would look into it and call me back. I have yet to hear from him. I did finally talk to the Mayor about two weeks later and he too said he would look into it. Never hear from him either.
So, what to do? Well, I have a business to run. I can't do it all. My foot traffic has been horrible. Sales are down. And the city of Maplewood couldn't care less. Why the city won't provide a conditional use permit is beyond me. The city won't help. And I am out of options. I can't be on the phone, in city hall, or write letters in "ordinance language so the council members will have it almost written for them" as my alderman suggested and run my business. I just keep on working, doing what I need to do and just share my experiences with you who are getting your store ready to open.
Please check into any future plans the city may have that may affect your business. I wish I had. Thank you so much for letting me vent. And if you feel like it, feel free to email our mayor and let him know your disgust at the city for not taking care of one of their own. On the subject line if you could, please put: "let Elizabeth House stay in business" because quite frankly, if I have several more months like the month of August, I will need to rethink my way of making a living.
Email: I hope I helped some of you to avoid the headaches that I have had.
from my house to your house,


Elizabeth Maxson said...

Hi Tracy,

I have many options. As of now, I have no idea which route to take. I've decided to do the "wait and see" for a bit. For now, I have no plans other than to continue what I am doing, and continue to grow. How and where I grow remains to be known. Thank you for sending an email. I know your time is valuable.


Anonymous said...

Wow, I had no idea this was going on! Hang in there.

I can thoroughly empathize with what it's like to work the bureaucracy. The big issue I had with my business related to double taxation not signage. As soon as I pointed out that I was being taxed twice on my kitchen equipment (once through real estate tax and then, again, in personal property tax), I had inspectors in the building who found other items to tax that hadn't been taxed before . . . so rather than alleviating my burden, they actually added to it. (Sadly, it doesn't pay to open your mouth in the City of St. Louis either.)

The irony is that there is all this talk about revitalizing the city and making it easier for new women and minority-owned businesses to launch, but I actually found the contrary to be true. I wish I could offer more optimism, but maybe the shared experience will give you some comfort in knowing you are not alone.

Love, Julie

Anonymous said...

Hi Elizabeth,

I was outraged to read your post, and immediately wrote to your mayor--copy below. I discovered your shop in Romantic Homes and it is something that I aspire to! I have had a shop for almost four years and know only too well the struggles we face in doing what we love, and how very draining someone's pettiness such as this can be. I am rooting for you! Don't give up. If I ever get to St. Louis, your store will be the first place I will go! Thanks for doing what you do!

Letter I sent...

Dear Sir,

I am writing to you after reading of the troubles that the Elizabeth House
shop has been having with your city's sign ordinance. You may not be aware
of this, but Elizabeth House has put your city on the map for much of the nation.
I am in Michigan, but I became aware of this shop through reading the extensive
press coverage that it has garnered in such popular publications as Romantic Homes and Home Companion--national magazines that are read by women like me who love
shops like this and make it a point to visit the cities they are located in and
spend money in those cities. It is shops such as this that make a downtown thrive.

I know this firsthand because I own a shop very similar to Elizabeth House in my own small town, where we faced many similar problems about usage of signs in front of our stores. After many discussions between merchants and the village council, all businesses were finally allowed to use these signs, resulting in improved business for everyone. Sometimes the public just doesn't "get it" that a shop exists unless
there is a sign on the sidewalk staring them in the face. We're not Wal-Marts
or Lowe's--we don't have massive ad budgets to spend to educate the public 24/7
about our existence. We have to rely on outside-the-box thinking in order to
earn a living.

A sign on the sidewalk is such a simple thing, and adds to the charm of a downtown.
And people spend money in charming downtowns. If no one knows that these businesses
exist, they will fold, resulting in stagnant, run-down towns that haven't a snowball's chance of bringing in tourists or new businesses and the tax revenue that goes with them. I have seen it happen in small towns in Michigan.

Let Elizabeth House keep their sidewalk signage, and you will continue to see your
town put on the map as a destination worth traveling to.

Amber A. Sears
Frivolities, Ltd.

Elizabeth Maxson said...

Hi Keith and Anita,

Thank you so much for your kind words. I am truly amazed at how total strangers are so supportive of my little business! You are so right about what it takes to make a community a real community. Right now, I feel like I have this wonderful "Elizabeth House Community" of friends around the world who care for this little store owner in Maplewood, MO. I feel very blessed and I hope someday I get to meet you both.


The Plum Tree said...

Dear Elizabeth,
I, too, was outraged at the lack of cooperation from your city government. I felt so lead to email your mayor:

Dear Mr. Mayor,

As a store owner in a very small town, I felt it necessary to email you to request your attention to the matter of the Elizabeth House signage issue. We all are one in saying that without the city government behind our small shops, our future is bleak.

Giant corporations like Wal-Mart will consume us and that is so sad. The small store owner, with all the sacrifices and attention to detail, deserves your concern and determination to look out for their best interests.

Please walk down the street that Elizabeth House is located on. Please recognize her need for proper signage to direct her customers to the store. Please do this for all of us.

Thank you so much for your time,
Dawn Edmonson
Plum Tree Antiques
McDonough, Georgia

The Plum Tree Antiques & Gifts
"Nurture Your Vintage Soul"

I must tell you though, my email was returned to me. He must have changed his e-mail address. I'm so sorry for your troubles and do hope that you will find a solution soon. I so look forward to every post you make!!
Take care,

Elizabeth Maxson said...

Thank you Dawn for your support. It means so much to me. The email address came directly from city hall -I called them for it myself.

Try this address:

Thank you!

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