In the last few weeks, Lafayette Health Club owner Debbie Swigert lost her lease and searched in vain for an affordable shop space. But the fitness-center doyenne says she's going out of business with a bang.
Swigert is hosting a party May 5 to say goodbye to the 5,000-square-foot gym she grew from a one-room workout space.
She's not the only small business owner in Lafayette who's calling it quits. Sandy's Unique Boutique and Handlebar Toys, two fixtures of the city's retail scene, are also shutting their doors. Handlebar's last official day is Thursday, although it may open for a few hours Friday if stock remains. Sandy's plans to close by April 30.
While many consider Lafayette one of the Bay Area's wealthiest communities, Handlebar Toys owner Lance Ghulam says the economy "is hard for everybody right now."
Customers are opting to shop online and at big-box chain stores rather than patronize small mom-and-pop outfits. Some comparison shop, scanning bar codes with their smartphones. As a result, some retailers are hurting.
"They're still struggling," said Jay Lifson, executive director of the Lafayette Chamber of Commerce.
However, the overall retail climate has actually become healthier, he says. Grocery stores and restaurants are doing well and sales tax is up.
Still, some boutique owners may be feeling the effects of business decisions they made a few years ago when the ecomony tanked. "It's still pretty
It wasn't just a single factor that contributed to Lance Ghulam's decision to close Handlebar Toys. But high rent definitely played a role.
Shuttering the 42-year-old toy store was a hard decision Ghulam said as he rang up purchases. He recalled pouring his creativity into the business after moving the store in 2007 from its previous location at Lafayette Plaza. When he bought the Handlebar from previous owner Freda Challis, he thought it would last for a long time.
"All good things must end," Ghulam said as a steady flow of customers came in to pick up discounted toys and say goodbye.
Rising rents and a drop in business are just some of the reasons Louis and Sandy Richards decided to shut Sandy's Unique Boutique, which has been in business for 33 years.
The owner's lengthy battle with lupus, an autoimmune condition that causes the immune system to attack body tissue, was another factor.
The boutique just isn't the same without Sandy, said her husband Louis as he stood behind the glass-and-copper front counter one rainy morning. A single customer hunted through racks of lacy, ruffled dresses.
He pulled out a small black-and-white photo of his wife as a graceful young woman with strawberry blonde hair and said her passion for fashion began in high school in Spokane, Wash. when she modeled clothes for a department store.
The business got its start when Sandy bought 100 striped T-shirts from a discount clothing outlet in San Francisco and sold them at a flea market at Wagner Ranch School. She began holding sample sales at school gymnasiums in Lamorinda, San Francisco and San Mateo, eventually building enough inventory to open her first shop in 1978 at The Clocktower.
The Richards' eventually opened a second store in Walnut Creek, and when it closed they expanded the Lafayette space. In September 2011, they moved to their current location tucked on the side of the Clocktower building. The space they once occupied has been renovated and awaits new tenants, while a red "sale" banner attempts to lure customers into the boutique's new home.
Clients are still working out at the Lafayette Health Club. One morning this week, one patron was lifting weights as another lay on the floor exercising his core.
A yoga class was underway upstairs and owner Debbie Swigert munched on an apple while a longtime patron tried out a CD player for sale; everything from treadmills to the carpeting must go.
"It's been great. I'm really going to miss it," said Dwight Yassany, who has been keeping fit at the club for 13 years. The convenient location, the friendly staff and the availability of the equipment kept him coming back.
The other reason was the care Swigert showed for her customers.
"She just put her heart and soul into it." Yassany said.