When I first moved back to Buffalo, I wasn’t intending on staying for long. I had just come back from a stint in California, and was planning on heading back out of town as soon as I could scrape together some money. This was around 25 years ago.
During my stay in Buffalo, I got a job and began to formulate my plan to head to Boston, or Chicago, or anywhere else but Buffalo. It wasn’t that I didn’t love Buffalo, it was that no one I knew was sticking around – there was nothing going on at the time. Eventually I saved up some money and set out to visit other cities, looking for opportunities. After each visit, I came back to Buffalo. It was during another short stint in Buffalo that a thought occurred to me – “If everyone else was leaving, maybe an opportunity might present itself – what the heck, maybe I should look around.”
By that time, I knew that I wanted to open a retail store called Thunder Bay, but I just couldn’t find the right fit in other cities – too expensive, too competitive, etc. So I decided to take a walk down Elmwood Avenue one day – something that I had never considered before. The street was beat up, and the sidewalks were a mess. The little park (where Globe Market is today) was known as “Needle Alley” because that was where the drug deals went down. Despite all of the negatives, I grew up in the neighborhood, so I wasn’t deterred by what I saw.
Next, I figured that I would walk into a few Elmwood businesses to talk to the owners. One after another, each owner told me that I was crazy for even thinking about opening a business. They told me to run for the hills… aka, another city. Just before throwing in the towel, I stepped into a tiny store that had recently opened called Urban Surfer (now Urban Leisure). The husband/wife operators, Edward “Ward” and Maureen Pinkel, greeted me at the door and asked if they could help me find anything. I said that I was thinking about opening a store on the street, and before I knew it they just about tackled me. “Yes!,” they shouted. “We’ll show you everything that we know. We’ll help you find a spot, and we’ll point out the pros and cons of locations. You have to stay in Buffalo and open a shop – please, stay and we’ll work together.”
That, my friends, is how I ended up staying in Buffalo. Despite every other sign telling me to get the hell out, this young couple convinced me to stay. It wasn’t long before I found a spot on the street (pretty easy considering that so many storefronts were available). After that, Ward and I would try to figure out ways to breathe live back into Elmwood. We cleaned up Needle Park, we painted, we pulled weeds and dead bushes, we created a live music series, swept the sidewalks, talked to other young people about opening businesses, and learned how to become viable urban pioneers. Despite the abysmal appearance of the street, and lack of businesses, we were resolute to make a difference. After all, we had invested money and time into our businesses and needed to figure out how to keep them open.
Eventually Urban and Thunder Bay moved into the same building (where Everything Elmwood is today), which helped to strengthen our brands. By that time, we were gaining some traction. A new business association was formed, and even the City jumped on board and fixed up the street and sidewalks. All of these improvements began to have a ripple effect. Young entrepreneurs would stop by to ask us about opening their own businesses on the street. Each time, we would answer their questions and do anything that we could to help them choose Elmwood (Buffalo) as the place to invest their time, energy and money.
The more shop owners that moved in, the more we could accomplish – from stringing holiday lights in the trees, to coming up with more ideas to attract people to the street… like the Elmwood Avenue Festival of the Arts (EAFA), which got its start when Greg Link (Cone Five Pottery – now on Hertel Avenue) walked into my store complaining that he didn’t get into the Allentown Art Festival. Greg was super talented – I even carried his creations in my store at the time. I said, “Why don’t we start our own art festival?”, which is how EAFA got off the ground.
It was an exciting time, despite being a precarious time. Urban and Thunder Bay became mainstays on the street, which was beginning to make a name for itself (again). In order to tell the stories, to spread the word, I started an online magazine called One4 (for the first two digits of our ZIP code) with a friend George Johnson, which I ran out of my store. I’ll never forget George telling me, “Dude, don’t do it in print – there’s this new thing called the internet… it’s free!” Well, eventually that online zine became Buffalo Rising.
A few of years later, after being in the retail business for 13 years, I realized that the magazine had taken over my life, and I had to make a tough decision. I closed the doors of Thunder Bay, which was very sad because I felt as if the store was still a success. I just knew that I was off to bigger and more important things. It turned out to be the best decision that I could have made, because from that point on, I literally lived and breathed Buffalo.
When Ward called me this morning, I already knew what he was going to say. “The time has come,” he said. “We’re closing our doors.” Although he had warned me a few weeks ago that the thought had crossed their minds, I was still very sad to hear the news. At the same time, I knew why they had made the difficult decision, and it was for the right reason. In recent years, Ward and Maureen had started investing in real estate in the city (Metro Beach, Inc.) I knew that the venture had not only been lucrative, it had also become time consuming. There was a point when Ward and Maureen were in their shop around the clock, which is important if you want to run a successful business. Since picking up the properties, Ward found himself being more of a landlord than a retailer. Eventually, the writing was on the wall – a decision had to be made.
The closing of Urban Threads is bitter sweet for me, Ward and Maureen, and Buffalo. Any store that can stick out retail for 25 years should be highly commended.
It’s funny to think that by helping to “rise up” the city from the ground up, we all set our destinies in motion. Just as I started a new chapter in my life with Buffalo Rising, Ward and Maureen are setting out on their own next chapter. “We’re viewing it as a very positive move,” Ward told me. “We still own the Elmwood building, and promise to bring in another great retail shop in the near future.”
I must admit that ever since I heard the news this morning, I have been a bit teary eyed. The news brought a wave of memories flooding back. Together, we learned about grassroots initiatives and how to love and care for a city. Through that, we became friends. Personally, I can’t imagine Elmwood without Urban. Still, I know that Ward and Maureen will continue to invest and grow Buffalo through their real estate ventures, which means that they will be infusing their urban sensibilities and ethics directly into our residential neighborhoods. In the end, these various chapters of our lives will result in a pretty awesome tale of How an Urban Surfer Set Buffalo Rising in Motion.
On Tuesday July 11th, Urban Leisure will begin liquidating their inventory and have a target closing date of August 27.