Spotlight on Small Businesses: idiom Boutique and EBM Vintage

Illustration by Kapp Singer

The relationship between New Haven and Yale has been fraught since  the University’s establishment in 1701. The give-and-take interplay between the Yale community and the city’s business owners is, in some ways, more relevant than ever during this turbulent time. Students have taken on roles as both employees and patrons of local businesses. Business owners cater to Yale academics, and landlord-tenant partnerships persist between Yale and a portion of the stores. The return of Yale students to campus this fall has turned around an otherwise bleak year for certain New Haven businesses, like EBM Vintage, that rely on student support.   

However, students and the University are sometimes inaccurately credited as the lifeblood of all local businesses. For stores that do not cater to the university or its constituents, Yalies’ return to the area has played a relatively small role in their efforts to survive during the pandemic. For this reason, the futures of many establishments that have a broader clientele—such as idiom Boutique—are still uncertain. 

In addition to providing certain New Haven businesses with strong client bases, however, Yale is also a massive landowner and has a direct effect on businesses such as idiom Boutique that tenant university-owned buildings. Stores that occupy independently owned buildings are less influenced by university happenings, as is the case for EBM Vintage. Autonomy from Yale has forced businesses in non-Yale buildings to find innovative ways to stay afloat financially—but these establishments have also enjoyed being able to stand tall in the midst of the pandemic due to their diversified clientele.   

New Haven businesses like idiom and EBM Vintage have nuanced, multifaceted entanglements with Yale. While idiom’s client base has little to do with the University, it relies on Yale for the space it occupies. On the other hand, while EBM is a tenant in an independently-owned building, it struggled with the departure of the Yale student body, who had long been reliable clients. These complex relationships are indicative of New Haven stores’ broadly ambivalent relationship with Yale; the University is alternately a support system and a foil to the independence of individual small businesses.

the University is alternately a support system and a foil to the independence of individual small businesses

idiom Boutique

When students think of the block on Chapel Street adjacent to Old Campus, the first shops that come to mind are Claire’s, Arethusa, Sushi on Chapel, and Basta. I have walked this block toward the Green countless times, but I had never stopped at idiom Boutique until one cloudy Friday afternoon this fall. A narrow store that extends back into the depths of the building, idiom carries upscale women’s clothing, jewelry, and accessories. When I walked in, owner Kimberly Pedrick was the only person inside, listening to upbeat music that masked the otherwise silent store. 

Pedrick owns both idiom Boutique and dwell New Haven, located at 1014 and 1022 Chapel Street, respectively. Due to the pandemic, Pedrick made the tough decision to close her doors mid-March and was only able to reopen them in the last week of May. In order to weather two and a half months without in-store business hours, she developed creative ways to bring in revenue by making use of other advertising methods. 

“During the time that we were closed, I took that opportunity to create websites,” Pedrick shared. For both dwell, a lifestyle store, and idiom, which sells apparel, artisan jewelry, and accessories, Pedrick set up “shoppable websites using Shopify.”

The closure forced her to find alternatives to preexisting revenue sources—standard in-person purchases—and pivot to digital platforms to withstand financial strains. Since March, Pedrick has increasingly tailored her marketing by bolstering her social media presence, making it possible for patrons who are not currently in the area to view the merchandise and shop online.  

“We have always been active on social media, but definitely became much more active [during the pandemic],” said Pedrick. “We did some live videos over here with selling, showing new apparel that was coming in.” 

Pedrick says that the return of Yale students in August was positive for the general atmosphere of the business district. People stroll down the sidewalks, stop into stores, and frequent the area, which has turned around the ghost town aura of the early pandemic months after students were sent home. However, students’ impact on revenue has been marginal at best for Pedrick, whose stores cater to shoppers outside the undergraduate population.

“Yale students obviously lend to the vibrancy and energy downtown, so you could definitely see that change when students did come back; however my consumer is more their parents, the faculty, staff. And unfortunately, a lot of those people are still working remotely,” Pedrick commented. At idiom, she explained, “our customer base is a working professional… so she either is affiliated with Yale or one of the office spaces in the downtown area, and that has obviously been dramatically impacted because not as many people are working downtown at this point.” 

Prior to closing, Pedrick had a staff of three part-time employees whom she has since had to lay off. As Pedrick is now running the store independently, she has drastically minimized her days and hours of operation since reopening. 

Pedrick says the environment in her store has changed dramatically now that she is the sole person working there. In the past, she and her employees made cooperative decisions on a daily basis. Now she is exploring other ways to maintain a bright and lively energy in the store, such as remerchandising and changing the window displays frequently. 

Despite the struggles her individual businesses are facing, Pedrick sees a positive change in attitudes toward small businesses and the increased willingness of outside entities to collaborate with store owners to stimulate business during this time. She cited her business partnerships with the Town Green, Market New Haven, the City, and Yale—the landlord to her and many other businesses along Chapel Street—as being “great asset[s] that we have moving forward that everybody really has worked together” to create.

The fact that business is exceptionally slow without Yale affiliates in town highlights the effects of gentrification on a business district that was not always so reliant on the University.

Pedrick’s opinion provides an unexpected counterpoint to New Haven residents’ criticisms of Yale’s gentrification of the city. By purchasing large quantities of land surrounding the university over the last few decades, Yale has pushed a number of small businesses out of their original locations. With new acquisitions, Yale has forced a turn towards  businesses that can afford more expensive rent and cater to customers of higher socioeconomic status. The absence of a Yale customer base during COVID-19 has brought these issues to the surface: though Yale might be a sturdy business partner, the type of shop that can afford Yale’s rent is consequently not a shop that a majority of New Haven residents can patronize. The fact that business is exceptionally slow without Yale faculty or New Haven office workers in town highlights the effects of gentrification on a business district that was not always so reliant on the University. 

Setting aside Yale’s complicated history with the city’s small businesses, Pedrick spoke warmly of the patronage of the New Haven community as a whole. “New Haven has always supported small business and restaurants; that is kind of what sets New Haven apart,” she said. “Now more than ever with the holiday season quickly approaching, that is so imperative to keep us all here for the coming year.” 

Pedrick’s comments implied that in the past, people shopped at small businesses intermittently and when it was convenient for them, helping individual stores by shopping locally. During the pandemic, however, choosing to shop at small businesses has become a more widespread, intentional movement in New Haven. “There’s been many opportunities where everybody has really come together and fostered just … the good of downtown,” she said. For Pedrick, members of the community showing support for one another in a unified manner has been an unexpected silver lining of the pandemic.

EBM Vintage 

Last year, during one of my weekends spent exploring downtown New Haven, I happened upon EBM Vintage. A quaint collection of Kodak Ektachrome slide film in cardboard frames kept me hovering over a side table for what seemed like hours, lost in the small moments of past lives. 

EBM Vintage, formerly English Building Markets, is situated at 839 Chapel Street between a clothing store and a home goods outlet. Owner Carol Orr sells an eclectic and charming mix of wares, ranging from bottle openers and pins to maps and typewriters. With a window display of hanging plants, the treasure trove of vintage goods—hidden behind what initially seems like a nursery—would be easy to miss for those in a hurry. 

After departing from idiom Boutique, I ventured further down Chapel past the Green to meet with Orr and hear her story as a business owner and landlord during the pandemic. She welcomed me in and invited me to take a seat in one of the antique chairs in the front half of the store. Orr offered to sit closest to the collection of glasses positioned precariously atop a small wooden coffee table to “assume responsibility in case one of them broke.” She was only half joking—it appeared that one light touch would send the metal tray containing the glasses careening to the floor. 

EBM Vintage closed in mid-March, then undertook a phased reopening process. In July, one person was allowed inside at a time by appointment only; August brought about full reopening with normal hours. Because EBM Vintage shifted to online sales, Orr kept her main employee on during quarantine to help her list items online, albeit for fewer hours. She let her part-time staff go, but since reopening has hired several college students to help out for a couple hours per week.

“As soon as we shut down, I started doing online sales for the plants and did local deliveries,” Orr said. “I swapped up my whole business model so that was really positive… I sell on Etsy and really clicked in because a lot of people just started shopping from home, so we did pretty well.”

Normally, Orr’s favorite part of her job is tracking down inventory at thrift stores, estate sales and private collections. During quarantine, acquisition of “new” vintage items came to a screeching halt due to a decline in the secondhand market. This trend was surprising to Orr, who figured that, with so much time on their hands, people would be more inclined to clean out their houses. 

“It was dead in the water. Sales just didn’t happen. Thrift stores were closed,” Orr continued. “But I was happy not to spend money because there was no one coming around to actually buy [my products].”

On the plus side, slower business presented Orr with the chance to address large-scale projects. Orr’s lease at Civvies, a vintage clothing and jewelry store, expired at the beginning of the pandemic, prompting her to work on absorbing her Civvies inventory into the EBM Vintage store and decluttering the aftermath. 

“I’ve been [in this EBM Vintage location] for fifteen years now, so I went through everything and probably took a hundred thousand bags of stuff to Goodwill. I just really got rid of stuff that was just cluttering up, so that felt really good to get things organized and cleaned,” Orr said.

With the new consolidated layout, Orr has populated the front of the store with original inventory from EBM Vintage, while the back half of the building now contains the Civvies merchandise, from two-piece ‘70’s sets and duster coats to intimates and ascots. 

Luckily for Orr, the downward trend in the larger vintage industry over the past six months has not been indicative of her own overall sales pattern. Income from EBM Vintage had been higher than usual prior to the pandemic’s initial strike to business in March, which gave Orr a bit of a cushion through what proved to be rocky months for the secondhand trade as a whole. Her projections for an above-average year were dampened by downtown office employees’ move to remote work, although her net sales up to this point in 2020 are not far behind those of the prior year. 

“Amazingly, when I run my numbers compared to last year, I’m only down by two percent. Which means I would have had a really good year if this whole thing didn’t happen,” Orr said.

Given the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, Orr is preparing for the possibility that businesses may have to shut down for a second time by solidifying her online sales presence. With potential closures looming ahead, Orr also has to consider her other irons in the fire: she has the rest of the building to worry about. 

“I own the building, and a big negative is that we lost our tenants. That is going to be a giant struggle financially because this store can’t carry the building. So that’s a little ‘keep-me-up-at-night’ kind of stuff [sic],” she admitted.

Unlike Pedrick of idiom Boutique and dwell New Haven, Orr does not have the safety net of having Yale as a landlord, something Pedrick identified as an upside despite other struggles. Orr’s role as both a landlord and business owner presents a unique set of challenges in any given year, all of which are exacerbated by the pandemic. That being said, Orr’s independence from Yale ownership preserves the diversity of her clientele, ranging from residents to downtown office workers. This is because her patrons are more determined by geographic location than the ability to afford pricey inventory, as is the case with small businesses selling upscale merchandise that rent from Yale, like idiom Boutique.  

Orr’s independence from Yale ownership preserves the diversity of her clientele, ranging from residents to downtown office workers.

Because Orr’s vintage items attract a broader customer base composed only partially of Yale students, she is, compared to other businesses, fairly insulated from fluctuations due to the absence of Yale clientele. Despite the hardships presented by the cancellations of usual Yale events—parents’ weekend, sports games, museum exhibitions, performances—that normally draw customers to EBM Vintage, Orr is enjoying the influx of Yale students and hoping the circumstances will continue to improve. 

“The students are back, tons of grad students are back, researchers are back and there’s actually a lot of people moving to New Haven so they’re finding me, but I am missing my regular lunchtime crowd,” she said, referring to the downtown office workers who are still working remotely. “But it’s great seeing everyone back and we’re doing okay. The fall’s been pretty good.”

The complex dynamic between small businesses and Yale University—with regard to consumer demographics and building ownership alike—has become increasingly apparent over the past six months. Tales of the pandemic from stores on opposite sides of the Green—EBM Vintage on the west side and idiom Boutique on the east—reveal the consequences of Yale’s gentrification of the business district immediately surrounding campus. The same businesses that feel fortunate to have Yale as landlords are hampered by their narrowed customer base, and have become reliant on university affiliates to survive. There is a clear benefit hidden beneath the glaring struggles of being an independent landlord and business owner: maintaining autonomy from a university that will lend a hand to feed you, but may eventually bite you.

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