Neighborhood: North Park
Starting your own business is hard work. There’s the mission statement, the business plan, tax and insurance issues… You need to consider whether you want to be a sole proprietor or in a partnership, possibly even a corporation. What about employees? Is one too few but two too many? How should you attempt to finance it? Are you able to bootstrap it, or will your family be able to pitch in?
How do I know how hard it is? Am I a business owner? No. But I’m currently on book number five regarding the topic. Perhaps Birthing the Elephant: The Woman’s Go-For-It Guide to Overcoming the Big Challenges of Launching a Business will whisper the secret words to me that will help me get over my paralyzing fear, and I’ll finally be able to go for it.
Since we got married in September, my husband Sean and I have been vacillating over what to call our burgeoning, new joint-savings account. Do we name it our “dream-house fund” and hire a realtor or call it a “start our own business fund” and get busy being our own boss? When we moved into our rental home on Madison Avenue last year, we fell in love with the area immediately. We would be ecstatic to own a home anywhere in the vicinity, and we see how much potential our little neighborhood has to start a business.
Sure, El Cajon Boulevard still has some unsavory types trolling around. Derelicts, druggies, and prostitutes still dot the street here and there, but so do shiny new businesses. When we head down the crest of the hill coming from Washington Avenue and pass under “The Boulevard” sign on our way home, we are greeted by Luigi’s Pizza and Eclipse Chocolate. Apertivo has moved into Dao San’s old space, and they’ve added an adorable little patio where you can sip wine in the sunshine. There are enormous properties with “Your Name Here” signs flapping in the breeze, and there are little slivers of spaces up for rent, some tiny enough to easily be a one- or two-man operation. And so we dream.
On Sunday, the sun was back after a spattering of rain, so I suggested we head into Hillcrest to go to the farmers’ market. Sean pleaded with me to try Pancho Villa Farmer’s Market instead. He’s been trying to get me to go for months, but I’ve been resistant. I can’t forget the last time I tried a new market at someone’s urging. I had gone to Vien Dong in Linda Vista, and the smell of fish guts smacked me in the face.
“Pancho Villa’s doesn’t stink” he assured me. “Besides, if I recall, the smell at Vien Dong didn’t stop you from getting ass-end up in a tank chasing a Dungeness crab around to bring home to slaughter.” True. I didn’t really care, anyway. This morning I was jumping at the chance for one of our neighborhood walks, where every business on our route will be given the once-over, and we could assess the viability of our own little shop being nestled in with the group.
As we head toward Señor Mango’s on 30th to get our favorite Vampiro juice, we take a moment to peer in the window of the dry-cleaner on the corner. “How does she even function in that mess”? The place looks like it hasn’t been cleaned or organized since the ’70s. Clutter and disarray line the windowpane and counter. She must be a dry-cleaning savant.
We get in line at Señor Mango’s and gladly wait our turn in the bustling little shop. We spend the time marveling at the simplicity of their business and how little space is actually needed to run it. Sean suggests that we look for a house that could be converted into a shop in front, and we could live in the back. “Yuck!” I didn’t like the sound of that any more than I liked the idea of a bed-and-breakfast. I guess it comes down to the fact that I like people just fine, but I wouldn’t want them loitering around my house all day.
I explained to him that in my hometown of Binghamton, New York, every other block had a converted house/market or house/bar. The house/market in our neighborhood was the Blue Grotto, run by an old Italian couple. I advised Sean that if my home were my business, I would run the risk of becoming just like them. They had handwritten signs on the magazine racks that warned, “Two-minute lookee-loo time…only.” If they decided that you had hung around too long without making a purchase, the corpulent, mustachioed mother would lumber out from behind the counter and yell, “You no buy, you go bye-bye!”
Heading up 30th into the warm sunshine, we pass Hortus and stop for a look in the window. I admire their sign over the door. “Hortus: Cacti, Succulents, Art, Eclectics.” We had been in a few weeks earlier to say “Hi” and welcome them to the neighborhood. We discovered that there are three owners: an artist, a horticulturist, and a collectibles junkie. “That’s the way to do it. All the risk isn’t on one set of shoulders — three people to share the expenses and the workload.”
A few doors down, in a little space that I had long admired but had no viable business plan for, we saw a handwritten sign that read, “Mucho Mountain Bikes, Coming Soon!” How will they have a bike shop in so small a space? I try squinting to see past the sign, but I can’t make out what the storefront will look like. I’m so excited to see what they’ll do.
As we continue on our way, I spot the Homeez Haul It van that has recently been parked in random spots along the block. Aha! That’s what we need to do. Not a brick-and-mortar store, but a service. All we need is a truck and — voilà! — my husband stood back and inspected my diminutive frame. He picked up my arm, assessed my bicep, and declared, “Not with that little chicken wing.”
“Oh, shit, look! Pretty Lady Hair Salon is gone.” I could have sworn that they were there just a week ago. It’s not as if I ever considered having my hair done there, but it’s disconcerting to see a business just vanish. No “Going out of business” sign, no warning, no fanfare. Just gone. We speculate about what could have happened.
As we pass Nami, I have to laugh. I remember when I drove by for the first time, and I was thrilled to know that we lived so close to a sushi bar. Then I took a closer look while I was on foot, and under the name was a breakdown of their acronym: National Alliance on Mental Illness. I was glad I had double-checked. I would have been mortified if I walked in and requested a warm saki.
As we approach El Cajon Boulevard, we stop and stare at the amateurishly painted, lopsided Indian face that vacuously gazes into oblivion. It’s supposed to commemorate the Turquoise Room at the Aztec Bowl that used to grace this spot. Now it just denotes the entrance to a cookie-cutter condo complex. All my fears about starting a business lie behind the vacant eyes of the Indian. What if we start a business and put all our time and money into it and it fails miserably, taking our savings with it? What if it’s a huge success for a minute and then becomes passé, and we watch it slowly die? What if I “what if” myself to death and never start anything at all? The Indian’s face remains grim and unchanging and reveals no insight.
We dart across the street, doing our best Frogger impersonation. “What happened to Birdland”? I cried. We passed Birdland every day on our way to work. Not to be cruel, but it’s one of the places we use as a benchmark to say, “See? If they can survive, so could we!” I look up to where the lettering used to be and then down to the padlock on the door and then to the eviction notice taped to the window. We wonder what happened.
“Wow, check that out,” I say as we reach the Children’s Creative & Performing Arts Academy, which, according to their banner, accepts students from preschool to high-school age. “Here’s what I don’t understand: how can they have a school of any sort right across the street from a strip joint?”
Botanico Chango is closed on Sunday, so their sandwich-board sign is not on the sidewalk advertising despojos, limpiezas, espirituales. The window, however, still announces all the fun stuff awaiting your arrival: “Religious Articles, Santeria, Amulets, Oils, and Spiritual Advice.”
We make our way into Pancho Villa’s Market just as two cop cars veer in, and three police officers hop out and start swarming the car they’d pulled over. I’d like to see what’s up, but my husband reminds me that I’m probably hexed, so I’d better not tempt fate by exposing myself to the possibility of being shot.
We hustle inside Pancho’s. It smelled, but it smelled wonderful! The scent of freshly baked tortillas filled the entire store. We made our way through rows of fresh produce so cheaply priced that I thought it must be a typo. There were at least a dozen varieties of peppers, and the bakery in the center boasted tortes and tarts that were a fraction of what you’d pay at Whole Foods. The meat counter stretched almost the entire length of the store, and you had to appreciate the fact that no part of any animal would be going to waste. We stocked up on produce, salsa, and took home a warm stack of corn tortillas that should last us a month — all for around 13 dollars. I left ashamed that I had waited so long to support one of my local businesses.
We head home down El Cajon Boulevard and stopped to linger at the window of ABC Piano, whose building has recently been put up for sale. We don’t have the heart to go in. Last time we stopped by, before it was for sale, we met the old man who owned it. He must have been 90 but was still so energetic, helpful, and charming. You could tell how much he loved his store and how he was so passionate about music.
As we were waiting for the light to turn so that we could head up Utah Street toward home, I noticed a Grand Opening sign on the newest “spa” — or, as we like to refer to them, “Rub and Tugs.” Glowing red lights announce these “spas” at all hours of the night.
Mimi, Ana, and Sumiko were just a few blocks away, but I guess there was a need for one more because the blaring red sign on the dark storefront with shaded windows announced that Kimmy Spa was now open for business. I also noticed that she had added her business name to the community billboard in the parking lot. Nestled in between “Dr. George K. Reese, Chiropractor,” and “Accidentes de Trabajo” was Kimmy’s sign: “Massage Theraphist.”
“Holy crap! Can you believe that glaring error”?
It’s silly that I’ve been so terrified about not being good enough to start my own business. It turns out perfection is not such a big deal. Why am I so scared? Kimmy isn’t perfect, and she’s still in business. If she can get a business started, so can we.