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Spokane’s Division Street hill rich in small business

Sun., Jan. 30, 2011

From DoughBoys to Poor Boys, the North Division Street hill in Spokane offers a mix of grit and glitter for customers seeking an alternative to cookie-cutter commercialism.

You can get your wedding gown or tux in one stop and have your tires changed at another.

“Everybody knows where Division is,” said Cindy Green, owner of Audrey’s, A Boutique at 3131 N. Division.

Green’s clothing shop is located in a former Moose Lodge that was converted into retail outlets two decades ago.

Despite the economic downturn in recent years, Green said, business is relatively strong. “You know, in this economy I can’t complain,” she said.

To the eye, the Division Street hill is not a pretty place. It has six lanes of asphalt flanked by a patchwork of parking lots. Mostly block buildings are adorned with and surrounded by every size and shape of sign.

There are few architectural achievements here.

Despite its helter-skelter look, the hill provides the one ingredient small entrepreneurs need: potential customers.

“You know how many cars pass here – it’s ridiculous,” said Frank Burger III, an owner of 509 GROW, which specializes in lights and supplies for indoor gardening.

The most recent traffic counts show that Division carries about 45,800 vehicles a day in both directions north of Buckeye Avenue. It’s easily the busiest arterial in Spokane, and likely the busiest between Minneapolis and Seattle, said Jack White, owner of Rare Coin Co., 3190 N. Division.

By comparison, Sullivan Road at Sprague Avenue carries 21,900 vehicles a day. Similarly, the heaviest traffic counts in Coeur d’Alene are just over 20,000 vehicles a day on U.S. Highway 95 and on Northwest Boulevard.

The Division hill strip – from about Carlisle Avenue on the south to Garland Street on the north – is a glimpse of American life.

Not surprisingly, auto-related businesses are scattered along the way, which serves as the route through the city for U.S. Highways 2 and 395. Retailers include Big Bubba’s and Poor Boys. DoughBoys sells discount tools.

The only larger business here is The General Store, 2424 N. Division St., a family-owned operation that pre-dates Target and Walmart. Its array of products rivals the competition.

Near the top, it’s hard to miss the huge billboard pointing the way to “everything romance” at the newly opened chain store called Adam & Eve at 3609 N. Division St. It is one of three shops at the top of the hill devoted to adult entertainment, lingerie and novelties. The others are Lovers and Hollywood Erotic Boutique.

Along the way, you will pass the Asian Health Spa and Joe Jeans Oriental Health Spa, both of which offer massage.

If you are hungry, there is a good mix of Asian food from Kay Lon Garden, Pho Van, Taste of India, Cathay Inn and Asian World Food Market.

When the state expanded Division from four to six lanes two decades ago, the widening put a squeeze on some businesses.

Rita Adamson, owner of Ed’s Barber Shop at 3140 N. Division, said the northbound curb lane is so close to her front door that rainwater and snowmelt often slosh over the threshold and onto her linoleum.

The mud next to the entry and water stains on the furniture offer proof.

Even so, Adamson said, her lease is pretty reasonable. During the recession, she’s been paying $500 a month or less for several hundred square feet of space.

Burger at the indoor grow shop said his lease is $1,700 a month, which is lower than the asking price at other locations elsewhere on Division.

People might think 509 GROW caters to marijuana growers, but conventional gardeners are using grow lights as well, Burger said.

As for marijuana, Burger said he has a strict “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and will not sell lights or other products if he suspects they would go for pot production.

Like the grow shop, local family-owned businesses are the rule here, although Starbucks, Staples and Jack in the Box have outlets near Buckeye Avenue.

Tina Hammond and her sister opened Guppy Tales Aquarium Shop at 3803 N. Division in 2009, for aquarium tanks and fishes.

Hammond said she has 1,000 customers from throughout the Inland Northwest, including some from British Columbia. They come to her for more unusual selections such as the freshwater stingrays and fire eels.

“I do a lot of special order business,” she said.

Customers here are loyal. Tammy Glanville dropped by and confessed that she had done business at another fish store. “I feel guilty,” she said.

Glanville said she keeps coming back because Hammond has a “great variety, more than the other pet stores.”

Even so, Hammond said she may have to move to a smaller shop to reduce her overhead. Purchases this month were down.

In 1994, jeweler Jim Pounder raised eyebrows when he left NorthTown Mall and spent $2 million renovating the former Moose Lodge at 3131 N. Division into a new retail shop for custom-designed and high-end jewelry.

He has been joined by his son, daughter-in-law and grandson in operating Pounder’s Jewelry. It is a pattern seen at other stops along the strip. “There are a lot of old-time families on Division Street,” Pounder said.

Susie Bowen took over Sweet Dreams Bakery, specializing in custom-designed cakes just inside the entry to Pounder’s.

Across the hallway, she has remodeled the space into a cozy cupcake lounge.

She and Pounder are building around the concept of having a bridal center, with several related businesses catering to weddings, including Audrey’s boutique.

What used to be part of the parking lot in front of Pounder’s Jewelry is now the site of a newer commercial building housed by Bridal Collections wedding attire.

Locating herself on the Division hill, Bowen said, “is the best move I ever made.”

“Division is the central part of Spokane,” she said. “Even if you are from out of town, Division is Division.”

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