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Monday, June 24, 2024
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Small businesses in Madison thrive on the close-knit community despite government setbacks

Small business owners share the highs and lows of owning a small business in downtown Madison.

Rick Jacobs has owned The Book Deal, an independent used bookstore in Madison, for almost six years.

With a brand new location opening on Mineral Point Road, Jacobs told The Daily Cardinal the most important constant for him has been the community.

“It’s so fun, seeing the cycle of parents bringing their small kids in who might pick up a handful of children’s books, and they come back a couple years later to return those books for new kids to discover,” Jacobs said. “And they’ve moved up to chapter books.”

The owners of The Book Deal, Art Gecko and Strictly Discs Small thrive off the support they receive from the Madison community despite a long recovery from the pandemic and ongoing government regulations.

Jason Ilstrup, president of Downtown Madison, Inc., said small businesses in Madison draw people downtown for shopping, cuisine and entertainment. Roughly 82% of businesses are locally owned by Madison residents like Jacobs, according to the 2023 State of Downtown Madison report.

Jacobs has put on a variety of programs to supply the Madison community with books for free. During the pandemic, The Book Deal gave away over 5,000 children's books to families, according to him. The used book store now offers five free books to any child who comes into the store, and 10 for teachers.

For Jacobs, “getting kids into reading and literacy programs” is of the utmost importance. 

“When they can build their own personal library at home, I think that makes a big difference, too,” Jacobs said. 

Rick Stoner, owner of the music store Strictly Discs, told the Cardinal he appreciates the Madison community for the support he receives as a small business owner.  

“It’s the community that sustains us as a business,” Stoner said. “In theory, people can buy records online new and used, so the fact that they take time out of their lives to come into the shop, spend time here, buy records here, means a lot.”

Through programs like listening parties and sponsoring events, Stoner said he is able to give back to the community that gives so much to him.

Nosheen Ajmal, co-owner of jewelry and clothing boutique Art Gecko, echoed Jacobs’ sentiment.  

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“It feels good to have products that all different people want, from all different walks of life,from all different colors and all different backgrounds and genders,” Ajmal said.

Owners cite government transparency, pandemic as hurdles 

However, owning a small business in Madison has not been easy for all owners.

Jacobs said the relocation to Mineral Point Road has not been smooth, with unforeseen hurdles impeding their progress.

“During the move, we had some regulars who would come and ask us ‘oh, when are you opening up the new store?’” Jacobs said. “And we just couldn’t tell them because we had no idea how long [the paperwork] would take.” 

Other small business owners resonated with Jacobs’ complaints, highlighting a lack of government transparency in redevelopment as a limiting factor in their ability to grow. 

Ajmal said it is harder for small businesses to expand as much as big businesses. 

“It’s just made for [big businesses]. Even to rezone — or just to fill out the application — is $900,” Ajmal said. “I think that’s a very exorbitant amount of money just for an application.”

Small business owners also reported mixed feelings about owning a business during the COVID-19 pandemic. While some were forced to adapt or change, Jacobs said The Book Deal was able to expand their store while being shut down. 

At Art Gecko, Ajmal recalled the financial burden the pandemic put on her and the business. She said her supply chains have not recovered to their pre-pandemic stock, which has exacerbated the pressures of running a small business.

Ajmal also said the increase in larger businesses moving to State Street has caused additional stress on her business.

“If there aren’t small businesses or cool shops, especially retail, if it just becomes restaurants and bars, it keeps people from coming to State Street,” Ajmal said. 

Ilstrup disagrees with Ajmal, citing the 2023 State of Downtown Madison report

“A lot of people think that when a Target moves in ‘ope, we’re losing that (small business)’, but in fact we’re not,” Ilstrup said. “We’ve been sitting between 80-85% for the last 20 years.”

In many of the new apartment complexes like Oliv, landlords integrated business spaces into the first floor levels, Ilstrup said 

Ajmal, however, said she is not impressed. She said the majority of businesses moving into these retail spaces are national chains. 

“State Street is known for having people from all different backgrounds come to it, and that’s why you really need stores like this,” Ajmal said. “Once they get kicked out and you just have corporate stores, [minorities] are not really always catered to.”

Stoner agreed with Ajmal.

“Compared to what it is from my time living here as a student to now, State Street is much more corporate,” Stoner said. “It’s subjective, whether you like that or not, but it certainly isn’t the same.”

Anticipating the future

Ilstrup said small businesses in Madison have a lot to look forward to. 

His team is creating a first-of-its-kind visioning program that combines the public and private sectors to determine what programming, arts and municipal facings downtown Madison should include in the future, he said.

At Art Gecko, Ajmal said her shipments are finally starting to recover post-COVID, with a brand new order from Indonesia coming in soon. 

At The Book Deal and Strictly Discs, plans are full steam ahead for the future. Strictly Discs is celebrating the opening of their warehouse location in the next few months, and The Book Deal is celebrating their 6th anniversary on June 29 and 30.

Ilstrup said the overall initiative is about building a better representation of the Madison community through businesses. 

“We want to build soulful spaces in soulful places for every soul in our community,” Ilstrup said.

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