At Dupont Circle, local shops struggle with higher rents and a changing neighborhood
by Annette Birch
Like an increasing number of local businesses in Dupont Circle, Ginza recently moved. The small Japanese shop has been in the area since 1980, but due to higher rents and fewer customers it had to move to a smaller space two doors down from its original site. Its windows exhibited everything from tea cans and porcelain to stuffed animals and DVDs, all imported from Japan.
Ginza’s owner, Virginia Yoneyama, explained that she had been looking for a smaller and cheaper space for some time in order to cover expenses. For even though the regular customers who live near Dupont Circle still shopped at Ginza, the total number of customers has gone down and expenses have gone up.
“We were closing because of the economy. The rent keeps on going up in the city and now people are more careful with their money.” Yoneyama pushed her long white hair with gray, brown and black strands back from her face and walked over to help a woman in her fifties who was wearing big earrings dangling around her face.
Business at Dupont Circle is changing
Rent in Washington, D.C. has been increasing gradually over the last 10 years. Reis, Inc., a private research firm providing real estate data, estimated that in 2011 rent alone increased with 5.4 percent and rent hikes went up to 10 percent.
Ginza is not the first local business at Dupont Circle which had problems with rent going up and number of customers going down. Farther down the street, a sign shows that Melody Record Store, which had been there since 1977, went out of business in January. The shop is still empty. On the other side of Connecticut Avenue, Benetton replaced a movie theater 12 years ago and the same year Starbucks replaced an old fashioned drug store. However, Kramerbooks, a local book store which has been at Dupont Circle for 37 years, is still there.
Yoneyama remembered when Ginza in 1980 moved to Dupont Circle from 20th and K Street where it had been since 1955. “There was very little here, when we first moved here, more small stores.” Yonemaya, who took over the shop in 1988, explained that the shop moved to Dupont Circle, because the area provided for a large market and was very progressive and accepting.
On the other side of the street a small used book store, Kultura, has been at Dupont Circle since 1980. Standing outside smoking a cigarette, the owner and local resident Irene Caoray said the neighborhood had changed a lot.
“Before it was more urban living as opposed to restaurants and more local customers. Now it is mostly customers from outside. The area gets trashy. Lots of restaurants and bars, the quality of business decline,” she said over the noise of a police siren coming down the street, while adjusting a strand of gray hair.
However, at Dolcezza, a small coffee chain shop farther down the street, Brett Dakin, a lawyer visiting from New York with a nostalgic feeling from his high schools days for Dupont Circle, did not agree.
“Generally, I like the way things are going. It is becoming a more interesting neighborhood with more places to eat and more individual shops,” Dakin said while enjoying a cup of coffee at the large common table.
Giving back to the community
Some Dupont Circle residents worry that more chain stores could mean less business participation in the community. Bob Meehan, who for 10 years has been a Commissioner for Advisory Neighborhood at Dupont Circle, a group of elected neighborhood representatives, found that the change in the business structure could have consequences for local business participation in Dupont Circle community initiatives such as Main Streets, a government initiative to improve business opportunities.
“Local stores participate more in local initiatives like Main Streets. National firms’ branches use other criteria. For example, Starbucks national has no interest in Dupont Circle. It depends on the brand and is less cooperative in issues on trash, local community and like,” Bob Meehan said.
Representatives from Starbucks, a national coffee chain, and Ann Taylor, a national retailer clothing store which has a local shop south of Dupont Circle, had no comment. But employees of some national chains disputed that idea. Rachel Mezynski, store manager for Benetton, a national retailer shop for women’s clothes which has been at Dupont Circle since 2000, explained that most of the local shop’s customers were from the neighborhood or tourists.
Just next door to Benetton, G-Star Raw, another national retailer clothing store which has been at Dupont Circle since 2008, Gregory Lennon, who is the District Manager for G-Star Raw at Dupont Circle, added that even though G-Star Raw is part of a larger corporation, the local store takes an interest in the local community.
Lennon pointed to a recent fundraiser for the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League, which supports lesbian, gay and bisexual youth in the Washington, D.C. area.
“We partner with local charities to give back to the community,” he said.
Baby boom creates new opportunities
Though rents have increased, not all of the news is bad. Yoneyama says she’s getting more business now from young families. Population estimates from the U.S. Census, show that in 2010 there was an increase of 5.4 percent in children under 5 years old in Washington, D.C., most of it due to more children up to three years old.
In the shop, a 3-year-old girl with light-brown hair wearing a pink striped coat looked around at the big stuffed animals, the small toy bears in pink, orange and purple, and pictures of kittens on cups and bags. Her parents, a young couple in jeans and coats, kept an eye on her.
“Customers are changing. They are getting younger and we have to change our product base towards the younger people in their 20s and 30s,” Yoneyama said and went over to assist her new customers.