Owners reflect on complex business environment in Durham

By Miranda Wilder
On April 4, 2014

Running a business is hard. Running a business in a college town like Durham is even harder: where business is seasonal,  incomes are limited and students typically look for an environment to unwind in after a long day of classes. It's a combination that makes demand intense for businesses that look to set up shop in Durham.

"I'd say it was busy. It had a busy atmosphere. High-pace," Elise Daniel, previous owner of The Bagelry which was replaced by The Works Bakery Cafe, said. "It was definitely a hangout place. People could come in and sit; we had Wi-Fi."

Over time, some businesses realize Durham just isn't the place for them. Some staple businesses, though, eventually close shop after a good run.

"After 30 years it was time for something else," Daniel said. 

With another academic year nearing an end, with a new batch of businesses both closing and opening, The New Hampshire spoke to several area business owners, past and present, on the history of Durham's business scene. As Daniel can attest, change is not always easy.

"We got a lot of sad comments," Daniel said, "and I still do."

The reaction she received from the community was definitely a disappointed one, and although she does not regret closing the business on a day-to-day basis, she does occasionally pine for the food, particularly the homemade bagels the shop used to make. 

The Bagelry has not been the only business to go within the past few years. In fact, there have been what seems like countless closings, re-openings and changes in ownership. 

"While the one or other business failed during the last years, it is unfortunately a risk every business owner takes," Chair of the Durham Economic Development Committee Ute Luxem said. "Fortunately it is not a Durham phenomenon that a lot of businesses fail because they don't do their homework." 

The committee does not keep any specific record of business failings in Durham, but according to Luxem the committee does its best to catch business owners on their way out. 

"There seem to be multiple reasons [why businesses fail]," Luxem said, "but we did not see any 'red flag' regarding one specific reason for business failure that dominated other factors." 

Clothing retail stores, in particular, have had trouble running successfully in the Durham area.

"Clothing retail competes with our neighboring communities, especially the Fox Run Mall in Newington or the large retailers in Portsmouth and Somersworth," Luxem said. 

Bindy's Boutique was located in Durham between Hayden Sports and Durham House of Pizza for many years before relocating to Newmarket. Bindy stated that the cost of operating a business in Durham and seasonality was not ideal for her business, and she is hopeful that the different economics in Newmarket are a better fit.

Belinda Curtis, the owner of Bindy's Boutique, however, had additional reasons why she thought a university town was not the best place for her shop.

"I didn't like the alley location," Curtis said. "It freezes up in the wintertime and it's hard to see from the main road . . . Many people told me they didn't know where it was or they couldn't find my store." 

Not only that, but she was disappointed with the amount of vandalism, broken bottles and destroyed decorations she would often find when arriving to work. 

"Probably 90 percent of my crowd was college students," she said. "So yes, it was great to be in a college town, but over time I just got tired of every time I came in having to deal with that." 

Although there were a small percentage of disorderly students, Curtis was enthralled at the amount of students who did come in to shop on a regular basis. After all, according to Luxem, without the university, the town would not nearly be able to sustain such a vast variety of businesses.

"As for the business community," she said, "Durham would not be home to as many businesses without the university because a 6,500-7,000 resident community would not be able to support the variety of retail and restaurants. Student business is seasonal, but most Durham businesses have adapted well." 

One building with a particularly lengthy history is the one that currently houses Aroma Joe's and Subway. 

The building was built in 1971 by Town and Campus owner Jesse Gangwer, and has been leased to a variety of managers until it closed for good two years ago. It first opened as a burger joint called Hungry Horse, changing its name over the years to the Tin Palace and then to Ballards, which closed in February 2012. It was always a popular joint.

"Back when it was the Tin Palace, we had the best pizza in town. We opened at 11 a.m. and by 3 we ran out of food," Gangwer said about opening day. "Back then the town was dry. Then it went wet and we opened a second addition."

In the early '90s, the kitchen's fryolator had a small fire in 2007, which gave Gangwer a chance to renovate the restaurant and put his niece in charge. Its name was changed to Ballards in 2008 when it reopened; "the Tin Palace" had since been taken. 

A bar was added with the addition of alcohol in town, and they placed a game room full of coin-operated games downstairs.

Running a restaurant proved to be much more work than it was worth, so Gangwer again decided to lease the building to Aroma Joe's, who has since leased the other half to Subway. Gangwer is pleased with the amount of business Aroma Joe's has attracted, and says that is "filling the town need."

 "We put [my niece] in," Gangwer said, "and she didn't have the experience to run a restaurant so we said to heck with it." 

To some, university residents may be negatively characterized as young and unruly kids. However, students are actually one of the reasons businesses remain so steady while school is in session, particularly in a less-than-ideal economy. 

"The benefit is a well-educated and mostly well-paid permanent customer base that has discretionary income available to spend," Luxem said. "An additional benefit is the presence of students who don't have a discretionary income, but spend on essentials, food and entertainment. ... The challenge for many businesses is the time UNH is not in session, as this significantly decreases the customer base. ... Every business should have a good understanding of its market and market changes in order to be successful." 

In Durham, business failures or other related changes not only have economic impact but social impact as well. 

"Our local businesses are very engaged and good corporate neighbors," Luxem said. "Many sponsor local events like 5ks, school events and offer charitable contributions to organizations right here in town... We really like our businesses and want all of them to succeed. We embrace change but prefer our existing businesses making those positive changes themselves rather than having somebody new coming in. Many of our business owners are known to our residents in person." 

The Bagelry was so popular among locals that The Works added several of their traditional bagel sandwiches to its own menu, including the club Mexico, the tuna melt and a variation of the super turkey. 

The Bagelry, of course, is not the only popular store to see its doors close over Durham's history.

"Many years ago [in April 2008], Durham lost its hardware store [ACE Houghton's Hardware]," Luxem said. "A situation which left a deep impact on longtime residents, as this store was an icon in the community. The market had changed and the business was no longer viable. No new hardware store came to town, but some of the product lines were picked up by other businesses." 

JP's Eatery, another local restaurant perfect for an easy lunch of subs or sandwiches, made it onto the Travel channel's "Man v. Food Nation" show before shutting down and becoming a mac and cheese joint called Mama Mac's. 

The episode featured the famous "Slapshot Challenge," in which 15 sliders and fries had to be eaten in one sitting, finished off with a thick milkshake. 

Mama Mac's was not in business for very long before it was recently sold to current owner Justin Hebert, who turned the space into a burrito shop called Salsa with late hours that last until 2 a.m. 

"It wasn't the number one mac and cheese I've had, but they had a wide selection of choices so that was a plus," UNH senior Mary Freni said, recollecting the former restaurant. 

Daniel, also a longtime resident of Durham, remembers another local business that have since been replaced. 

"There was a place called the Licker Store where the Candy Bar is now that had great ice cream and other food," she said. 

She also recalls Benjamin's, an eatery that used to exist where current restaurant Thai Smile - 2 now stands. Before Benjamin's, the building was a movie theater. Between the time Benjamin's closed and Thai Smile - 2 opened, a chain restaurant, Wings Your Way, did business.  The chain shut down all of its locations in 2011.

"There was a video store, but that went with the times," Daniel said. "No need." 

Interestingly enough, Durham is still mostly composed of locally owned businesses. Not many chains or franchises have taken the place of closed or failed businesses. In fact, The Bagelry actually replaced a Burger King when it originally opened. The town has zoning restrictions making it a less desirable location for chains. 

Small businesses like these are what give a community such as Durham its character; they help to create the atmosphere of the town, and sometimes when they go, they leave lasting and fond memories that cannot entirely be replaced. 

"While some businesses come and go without leaving a significant impact," Luxem said, "others are anchors in the community and would be dearly missed." 

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