Sunday, January 02, 2000

Record store bolts Corryville for Oxford

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        For almost 15 years, John James tried to supply his loyal customers with whatever they wanted, and that wasn't too hard. They wanted hard-to-find music, and he's in the music business. But there wasn't much Mr. James could do for his customers when they complained about the street vendors and panhandlers who began milling around his Wizard Records on Short Vine in Corryville.

        He started to lose good customers. After a few years, he started to lose a lot of business.

        Finally, Mr. James decided that he'd have to flee to survive. He closed Wizard Records & Tapes and this month relocated to Oxford, opting for the risk and expense of relocation over staying in Corryville. These days, he's setting up shop and enjoying the friendly nature of a new college town.

        “We really fulfilled a need and had a lot of fun doing it, but the scales tipped,” said Mr. James, 38. “The good customers did not want to come to Corryville. I think the youth culture in general kind of went downhill, and that neighborhood reflected it.”

        Mr. James made a business decision necessary to continue his livelihood. But there are many other Corryville merchants who say the scourge of Corryville is not crime; it's the incorrect perception that it is an unsafe neighborhood. They describe Corryville as a community rich in culture and diversity, brought down by a couple of well-reported incidents of lawlessness.

        “If you come up here right now, this is really a peaceful community,” said Pete Mello, owner of Daniels' Restaurant & Pub at Vine and Daniels streets “We don't have drive-by shootings, murders, gang fights.”

        Corryville businesses are fighting for their reputation, while Mr. James' decision brings him a different challenge: building a business in a new neighborhood.

        “If the move is over about two miles or so, you can't expect a significant percentage of all your customers to follow you,” said Gary Wright, president of the retail consulting firm G.A. Wright Inc. in Denver. “He's starting basically from scratch, and that's a very difficult thing for a retailer to do.”

Perception, not reality
        Corryville for years has attracted an eclectic group of visitors and residents with its combination of alternative retail, pubs and open-mindedness. Surrounded by the University of Cincinnati and a few major hospitals, the area caters to professionals, students and aging hippies. Most of the retailers in the area reflect that.

        Wizard Records made a name for itself by supplying alternative titles and music that couldn't be found elsewhere. The business thrived for years.

        “It was zesty and fun and kind of electric,” Mr. James said.

        Customers of Wizard Records, such as Brad Johnson of Mount Lookout, stopped coming because it is “virtually impossible to get out of your car up there without being harassed for spare change, or approached by another pedestrian who is selling single products,” Mr. Johnson said.

        “It got to the point where I started actually calling Wizard's to see if they had something specific that I was looking for at the time.”

        But not everyone is put off by panhandlers and street vendors, who are often a part of the urban landscape. “During the day, it's perfect,” said Tom Connelly, 35, a Fort Mitchell resident who shopped at Wizard since 1985. “The street merchants, they didn't bother me.”

        Likewise, those who know the community said Corryville is safe.

        “I would definitely not discourage anyone from coming to Corryville,” said Lt. Mark Hildebrand of the Cincinnati Police Division, who regularly patrols the area. “As far as serious crime, acts of violence against victims, I think it's more perception.”

        Mr. James agreed. As he put it, if the Nobel Prize winner lived on “Short Vine,” it would be reported as Clifton. If someone were robbed on Short Vine, it would be Corryville.

        According to Cincinnati Police crime statistics, there have been 19 reported cases of aggravated assault this year to November in the four-by-five-block area surrounding Vine Street between Corry Street and University Avenue. In 1997, there were 18 incidents for the full year. There were 12 robberies in 1999, compared with 22 in 1997, and 11 cases of disorderly conduct in 1999, compared with 2 in 1997. Thefts rose to 305 from 261.

        In all of Corryville, there were 30 reported incidents of aggravated assault this year. That compares with 28 cases in all of 1996. There were just two cases of aggravated assault in Hyde Park this year, but there were 10 in Oakley and 58 in Northside.

        The perception of crime can be worse for business than actual misdeeds. Barry Strum, director of Oxford Community Improvement Corp. and a former senior development officer with the Cincinnati Department of Economic Development, said some Corryville business owners became intimidated by Sunday night gatherings in the summer. He said the general public might have the perception that such gatherings of large groups occur every day.

        Messrs. Strum and Mello do not begrudge Mr. James for leaving Corryville, because it was a business decision. Mr. Mello said Wizard Records was especially affected by street vendors who also sold music, and the store attracted a largely youth market.

        “He just wanted to be someplace where his clientele can get to him with as little hassle as possible,” Mr. Strum said of Wizard Records.

        Two years ago, the business and community leaders of Corryville formed the Corryville Economic Development Corp. and the Corryville Community Development Corp. to help build the area's good image.

"Who could blame him?'
        While the merchants of Corryville fight to regain the community's reputation, John James is meeting his new business neighbors and relishing the rural beauty of Oxford. He will probably move his home from Clifton Heights to Oxford next year.

        “I was just bowled over with just how beautiful it is,” Mr. James said. “I just fell in love with it up here.”

        Mr. James decided to move two years ago, after he sensed a “predatory nature” among some of the youths in the area. He had his eye on the Clifton/Ludlow area, but an adequate space never opened. Meanwhile, he took his son swimming and camping in Oxford, and he got to thinking about that. When his lease expired recently, he moved.

        “Who could blame him for wanting to move his operation to Miami (University)?” said Mr. Johnson, the customer. “Miami is very pedestrian-friendly, making it an area that's conducive to streetside shopping.”

        But relocating to a completely new market carries high risk, said George Whalin, an adviser with Retail Management Consultants in San Marcos, Calif. Mr. James will have to work hard, he said.

        “In this case, he essentially gives up all his old customers,” Mr. Whalin said. “He's essentially starting a new business in a new town, so he has to do all the things you do when you start a new business.”

        The new Wizard Records & CD store is on High Street, the main drag of the community. It has competition there, but it also has a vibrant college community to serve. Mr. James said he is prepared to meet the challenge of winning a new clientele.

        “Oxford is utopia,” he said. “I feel very comfortable with the future.”


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