When Buster shows up at City Pet Life, the store’s staff knows it must be Tuesday. That’s because this cocker spaniel has been coming in for his weekly baths since the pet shop opened almost a year ago.

“Buster is a real regular around here — we all know him, and he knows us,” says Eric Young, co-owner of City Pet Life.

That level of familiarity can be found inside just about any independent business in our neighborhood. In fact, that regular face-to-face interaction is often what brings customers through the door.

“We specialize in healthy dog food, and if you don’t know a lot about dog nutrition, it can be overwhelming,” he says. “But the customers know I’m here to help them pick the right food. And if for some reason the food doesn’t work out or their dog’s nutritional needs change, they know they can come back and talk to me again. I think they like talking to the same person because I remember them and their pets.”

But that kind of quality customer service isn’t always enough to keep small businesses thriving in our neighborhood. Preston Hollow is saturated with national retailers that have washed out many of the local, independent shops. Indeed, opening a mom-and-pop-shop in NorthPark’s back yard is a little like the battle of David and Goliath, only the little guy doesn’t always win.

Yet some small shops manage to stay in the retail game, and while each business owner has his or her own tactics for keeping the doors open, they all agree that running a business in our neighborhood is never easy, but usually worth it.

Just ask Young. While he says he looks forward to coming to work, there are constant battles to stay afloat.

“We are always trying to reach more people and let them know that there’s an alternative to the dog foods they see on the shelves of their local grocery stores,” he says. “Because of our small size, we are pretty much relying on grassroots marketing right now. I’d say most our business just comes from word of mouth.”

But with a PetCo one mile away and a PetSmart within two miles, how does a neighborhood shop like City Pet Life compete with the national heavyweights? Young says they don’t.

“We make it a point to carry items they don’t,” he says. “We are more of a specialty store in the sense that we sell things that aren’t commonly found at other mainstream pet stores.”

Examples include tiny patent leather raincoats and rhinestone-studded tees with cutesy phrases such as “Been there, chewed that.” You’ll also find pet-inspired photo frames, jewelry, greeting cards, books and even board games.

“I think we’re very different from other pet stores because we’re part dog spa, part dog boutique, part gift shop, and part dog supply and food store,” he says.

This appeal to a neighborhood niche market is how many independent businesses survive in Preston Hollow. Danna Sesler, owner of The Tiecoon, a funky gift shop at Preston Center that prides itself on its eclectic inventory, confirms that.  

“You never know what you’ll find here, and I really think that’s why people like coming in,” she says. “They love to come in to just browse because we carry such unique items, and we carry things for men and women of all ages.”

But things weren’t always that way at The Tiecoon. When the shop first opened over 20 years ago, it was strictly a men’s tie and cigar shop. Sesler bought The Tiecoon eight years ago, and she says it’s still evolving today.

“I carry a lot of Texas-themed items because they are real big sellers with my tourist clientele,” she says. “But I also have to cater to my neighborhood customers, so I carry a healthy mix of vintage items and new items. I also carry several items by local artists, because people love supporting the local arts here.”

And thankfully for Sesler, the local art scene isn’t the only thing our neighborhood supports.

“People are extremely supportive of the mom and pop stores in this neighborhood,” she says. “That might surprise people since we have NorthPark, but to be honest, I think people just like coming into these small stores and chatting with the owners. Here at Preston Center, they can come into almost any independent store at anytime and talk with the owner, and there’s a degree of comfort in that.”

That small-town-esque appeal is exactly what Sesler wants her customers to feel when they walk through the door of her shop.

“I want this place to feel like home, or to feel like a comfortable old pair of shoes,” she says.

And it’s safe to say she has reached that goal because she has a stellar core of regular customers who have been with her from the beginning. But even with loyal shoppers, Sesler says she still fights to stay afloat.

“The internet is probably one of my biggest problem areas,” she says. “Everyone wants to shop online nowadays, and we do have a website where customers can do that — but my inventory changes so rapidly that I’d have to hire an entire team to constantly update it, and there’s just not room for it in the budget.”

Sesler’s not alone there. Kay and Lin Kimmer feel the crunch, too. The siblings are the second-generation to run Party Bazaar, a small party supply store off Lovers. Even after 55 years in Preston Hollow, the business still faces budget issues.

“Higher utility bills and higher freight bills due to the rise of gas have really taken a toll on us,” Kay says. “Every time those bills go up, someone has to absorb that, and sometimes it’s us, and sometimes it’s our customer.”

But price fluctuations don’t seem to be keeping customers away. After more than five decades at the same location, Party Bazaar is really considered part of the neighborhood and has some very loyal shoppers.

“I remember when some of our customers were little kids and they came in here shopping with their parents,” Lin says. “And now, those little kids are parents with little kids of their own. A lot of these customers have been with us for generations.”

And it’s not just the clientele that has remained loyal. Most employees have been there for more than a decade; in fact, only one employee has worked at the shop less than five years.

And although the siblings have devoted most of their lives to running the small store, often putting in unpaid overtime, they say they have no plans to leave, and they say the same is true for other small shop owners in our neighborhood.

“There are so many independent shops here on Lovers Lane, and most of us small business owners know each other, and we all look out for each other like a little family,” Lin says. “And we’re all lucky enough to be in a neighborhood that supports us for the most part.

“I know that we love our customers, and we love being here.”

 


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