Japa Salon recently traded its Main Street storefront in charming downtown Stillwater for a spot in a strip mall along Highway 36, near the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Business is better than ever.
Leaving Main Street was a difficult decision for Japa Salon owner Steph Gruber Beedle. She grew up in Stillwater and worked on Main Street before buying Japa Salon five years ago. That’s when she discovered that Main Street’s scenic appeal mattered a lot less than convenient parking.
“For so many women, sitting in traffic to see a beautiful salon in downtown isn’t a priority,” Beedle says. “People thought I left because the rent was too expensive. It’s actually more expensive in the strip mall.”
I don’t live close enough to make a habit of getting my hair cut in Stillwater. But I do visit the riverside town as often as I can, and while I always look forward to the experience—walking along the river, taking my kids to Teddy Bear Park— lately I’ve been disappointed by Main Street. There are bright spots—stores that have a point of view, such as Alfresco Casual Living, Mara-Mi, Stella, and 45 Degrees. But too many unmemorable stores have come and gone in recent years.
The recession still comes up a lot when talking to Stillwater retailers. This is one of the last shopping areas not overrun by chains, and many of the local owners were hit hard by the economic downturn, which was compounded by rising downtown property taxes.
And yet, this town has what most sprawling suburbs try to re-create: a city center with history and unique boutiques and character. Isn’t that a big part of the appeal of living in and around Stillwater?
Not when there’s traffic congestion, it seems.
“A lot of people in the community don’t go downtown,” Beedle says. “Locals say they love downtown, but that’s not where they’re going to buy Christmas gifts.”Funding has finally been approved to replace the old lift bridge and put an end to the massive traffic backups through downtown Stillwater. It will be a couple of years before it is complete, but just knowing traffic relief is coming has lifted the spirits of Main Street retailers. More bike paths are also on the way.
There are other encouraging signs on Main Street. Respected brand Cooks of Crocus Hill recently took over The Chef’s Gallery. Inside the Grand Garage are a couple of new stores that haven’t wowed me, but they do give me hope. Grace James Boutique sells well-priced contemporary apparel. Sash focuses on a mature shopper and offers larger sizes. Both are intimate, practical, and just the sorts of stores Stillwater needs more of to remind locals that it’s worthwhile to hit Main Street before the mall. A hometown base is crucial to keep the lights on between the weekend excursions of out-of-town visitors.