April 20, 2007
By JENNIFER WARNER COOPER, Special To The Courant
On May 12, Joanne Douglas will bid farewell to her longtime Hartford store, The Unique Antique, and turn over the keys to a new owner.
For more than 20 years, Douglas, 65, has owned and operated the shop, buying and selling such rarities as 100-year-old cameo brooches and Civil War-era mourning jewelry fashioned from the braided hair of fallen loved ones.
Douglas, who lives in Manchester, relocated her business in 2003 from the Hartford Civic Center to 960 Main St., which formerly housed the G. Fox & Co. department store. The store's new owner plans to open in early June in the same location.
Q. In your 20-plus years as a downtown retailer, you've seen plenty of other retailers close up shop - AnnTaylor, Luettgens Ltd, Sage Allen and G. Fox, to name a few. Why did you stay?
A. I became associated with the shop in 1985 in the Civic Center [mall], and bought it in 1988. That year, we had five girls working in the store, and we were so busy, it was incredible.
Later, the stores began to close. It was scary to see everybody moving out. We hung in for a very long time, way beyond my lease. That last year, especially, was very tough. My kids all said, "Why don't you move the store to West Hartford?" but I didn't want to go. I love Hartford, and I just wanted to stay.
After TJ Maxx closed, there were not a lot of people coming in to shop in the Civic Center, and we moved here. I still had my following of customers, but the first year here was very tough.
The plans for this building looked good; they'd wanted to bring in a lot of upscale retail. When the restaurant opened, business was very good for me. Since then, the restaurant has closed. These are the hills and valleys of downtown retail.
Q. You've got a specialty business with some very unique and expensive items. Connecticut may be a rich state, but about 32 percent of Hartford's residents live below the poverty line. Who are your customers?
A. I do have a lot of customers who are commuters on their lunch hour, mostly men. But surprisingly, a lot of my customers have been below the poverty line. I can tell you a story about that.
When I was at the Civic Center, there was a couple who kept coming in to look at a particular ring. The woman said she'd do anything to have that ring. I cut the price and asked if they wanted to put it on layaway, told them they could take as long as they needed to pay for it. Well, they came in every day, sometimes three times a day, with their soda can money, and they paid for that ring, which was about $400, in four months. These people were on the streets.
Q. Developers like Northland Corp. and Bradley Nitkin are pumping money into new retail space at Front Street and the Civic Center. Considering all of the suburban shopping outlets in Greater Hartford, how optimistic are you about the future of downtown retail?
A. I would like to say that I'm still hopeful. If more people are living downtown, I'm hopeful that things will turn around, although I was hopeful that with this situation [at 960 Main St.] more retailers would come in here, but they haven't.
Q. Mayor Eddie Perez said last month in his state of the city address, "The time of decline is over. Hartford is on the rise and on the brink of great things." In your opinion, what could the city do to support downtown businesses?
A. The parking situation is terrible. People would come and park, and end up with a ticket. And while I understand that the parking garages are having their own problems, I don't think that they should be allowed to raise their rates when there is an event; that looks bad for Hartford. They should do something to make it easier for people to come into Hartford. Offering free parking every Saturday or every Thursday night would be an incentive.
Also, I think that people [in the suburbs] have the wrong impression of Hartford. I have friends that I've played bridge with for years, and they have never even seen my store because they're afraid to come downtown. At the Civic Center, I had one robbery, and that was at 5 a.m. I've never felt unsafe or uncomfortable downtown. In fact, I came in here the other night to drop off some items, and the streets were lively, with plenty of people. There is nothing to fear.
When Mayor Mike [Peters] was mayor, I was very optimistic about Hartford. He would do anything for any of us. He came to visit me at the Civic Center, he wanted me to stay there and told me that if I ever needed anything to come and talk to him. He was a great asset to downtown.
Q. How does it feel to sell the business?
A. It's my time to retire; I'm kind of tired, and I have a significant other that I want to spend time with.
May 12th is our last day here, and I need to sell my entire inventory before that, so I've put everything on sale. My business has been rewarding, and I've supported my three children on it, but like any other business who has been with Hartford through the rough times, it's been a struggle.
The biggest sadness I have in leaving the business is [leaving] my customers that have been with me for so long. I've had regulars from the Civic Center for so many years.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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