In retail, registers sing

Mona de Crinis

El Paseo Village
Illustration courtesy Davis Street Land Co.

This fall’s opening of El Paseo Village delighted expectant shoppers hungry for hip, high-end stores such as Juicy Couture, Banana Republic, Kate Spade, Bebe, Lucky Brand Jeans, and Janie & Jack. Techies in town rejoiced with the announcement of a much-desired Apple store entering the mix. Mastro’s Steakhouse is coming into the trendy square — just in time for the holidays.

General Manager Robert Fliday reports a 98 percent occupancy rate for the newly opened Village, developed by Davis Street Land Co., whose local portfolio includes The Gardens on El Paseo.

“We’ve had great success at The Gardens on El Paseo, so we were able to bring national tenants to El Paseo Village that we thought would be a good fit,” he says, adding that the new center skews to a slightly younger demographic. “Since October of last year, we’ve seen increases [in sales] — some months significant — at The Gardens,” he says. “That’s what basically gave us the green light to start building the center. We’ve also opened up a couple of high-profile locations [in The Gardens], Anthropologie and Louis Vuitton, which have both done extremely well.”

Fliday credits El Paseo Village tenants with creating a palpable buzz. “People have been looking forward to these stores coming in, because the retailers are new to the valley,” he says. “I think it will draw a lot more traffic and help everyone on the street.”

According to Joy Meredith, president of an association of downtown Palm Springs merchants, some 37 retail businesses have opened their doors along or near Palm Canyon Drive during the last year or so, and 19 have expanded or relocated downtown. Loss of conventional jobs spurred people to invest in their own interests and talents, Meredith notes, citing the advent of more art galleries and stores selling collectibles.

The Uptown District of Palm Springs is enjoying a renaissance, boosted by last year’s debut of popular Trio Restaurant. Fashionably funky stores peddling midcentury modern wares, rare antiques, and Asian imports attract shoppers interested in art, design, and home furnishings. “It’s an area that has finally come into its own,” Meredith says.

Several stores expanded during the past 12 months, buoyed by revitalized consumer confidence. Crystal Fantasy, Latino Books y Mas, and Modern Mosaics took advantage of reduced rents and available space. Meredith’s Crystal Fantasy store added classes teaching people how to use its products and exhibitions of local art. “The key is working together,” Meredith says.

Dwight Polen Fine Chinese Antiques opened a second store on El Paseo early this year, broadening its reach from the Uptown Palm Springs location launched 10 years ago.

“While it’s only a short seven miles away, [El Paseo] is a totally different demographic,” co-owner Tony Larcombe explains. “But we elected not to do anything different. We didn’t raise prices. We didn’t buy things we wouldn’t have bought for the Palm Springs store.” As a small-business owner, Larcombe says he’s noticed an improved market in 2010 — no more “death grips on wallets.”

“People are in a much better, more positive frame of mind,” he says. “There’s not as much worry and concern over ‘should I be buying now or should I hang onto my money?’”

Stephen Monkarsh echoes the awareness of favorable spending patterns at his book, card, and gift store, Just Fabulous. The shift encouraged his takeover of a neighboring space, expanding his boutique at The Corridor on Palm Canyon Drive from 750 to 2,500 square feet. “This is truly a dream come true,” he says, “and a sign of progress for us and for the city of Palm Springs.”

Further sweetening the local retail landscape, Brandini Toffee opened last December in Rancho Mirage. Owners Leah Post and Brandon Weimer were teens when they started their candy business as a way to make money for a school trip. Four years, an appearance on The Martha Stewart Show, and numerous awards later, they opened a 5,200-square-foot store and toffee factory, which they operate while attending college. Now sold in gourmet food stores, hotels, and wineries across the country, Brandini Toffee is a locally grown success story for the duo that first sold their sticky goods to friends and family and at street fairs and expos.

Retail survival and progress depends largely on local support, Meredith asserts.

“Locals are my bread and butter, and tourists are the icing on the cake,” she says. “Locals carry you through the hot summer and the good times. They become more than just customers. They become friends.”