Joe Pipersky is a thoughtful, well-read dude with seasoned opinions on the future of the small businessman in America. He owns and operates Joe’s Grill and Holy Guacamole! on Main Street Santa Monica, and currently serves as chairman of the Main Street Business Improvement Association. To get a view of business currents at street level, the Mirror’s Steve Stajich sat down for a cup of coffee—and an earthquake!– with Mr. Pipersky.
Four dollar gas and rising food prices. In what ways does it impact your businesses right now?
Well, first off food prices are going through the roof. And I think inflation is going to tear through this economy for the next couple of years. Driven by gas and demand and…well, I feel a fire of inflation behind me that you can’t believe. With rents going up and gasoline going up… and it drives down customer counts. The higher gasoline costs seem to be helping business at Holy Guacamole! because it’s a less expensive product, and then having a greater impact on Joe’s in terms of pushing business down a little bit.
Do you think beach traffic, walk-by business is down because of gas and money?
I think it’s up, because the value of the dollar is down and we are being tourist-driven by Euro-dollars.
Santa Monica Place is going to remodel-– [Here, there was an earthquake.]
Whoa! Whoa! That’s a pretty good. And it lasted a long time. It’s still going… [People now come out of Main Street businesses to the sidewalk] No, it’s still moving. Wow!
My notes will read “Breakfast at Joe’s… the earth moved.” Santa Monica Place is going to remodel and create an open air market with food sales. Are you concerned about an impact that might keep people from discovering the treasures of Main Street?
Nobody lives in a vacuum. No commercial district lives in a vacuum and my experience tells me there’s only one answer to that question: “I’ll tell you in five years.” You never know what the impact of anything is going to be. Main Street is probably the best walking street in Southern California. We have a lot of small businesses, which separates us from the Promenade and places like Universal City Walk… stuff like that. But we’re still [a place] where a guy named Joe can own a restaurant and people will come. I think that overall, development of the sort that we’re going to see down there is not conducive, generally conducive, to the small businessman who capitalizes his own business. There has been and continues to be a centralization of capital within our culture. And we see now that places like the Omaha Mall and the Third Street Promenade and Universal City Walk and downtown San Diego… they’re all the same.
Main Street, because the stores are smaller, still hasn’t attracted those large capitalized companies and because the places are smaller it is able to attract family-owned business. To the extent that family-owned business can continue to compete in general with large vertically integrated companies, Main Street will be able to stay strong. Unless our culture simply ends up rejecting the small businessman, which is a possibility in the next 20 years. I mean, when my father owned bars in Hawthorne in the 1980’s, everything was independently owned. There was McDonald’s and Jack and the Box, you know. But my father thought maybe he’d like to get into another business. Get into the hardware business. Well, you can’t do that any more. He thought he might like to own a stationery store. Well, you can’t do that anymore.
I think it’s very interesting and very telling that it’s hard for the small businessman to be able to compete in this environment and either he will or he won’t. I’ll let you know in 20 years. But unless we have some huge changes in our laws nationally… You know, we haven’t visited any anti-trust legislation in retail since the 1960’s. And our government seems to be pre-disposed to running toward this centralized capital and this lack of economic democracy. And I think it may very well, ultimately, destroy the American way of life. But I can’t let you know for 20 years.
Main Street had a “Summer Solstice” promotion and in a separate conversation, you indicated that there might have been some disconnect on that with City Hall, some problems.
I’m not sure that I would call them problems, or that I would use the word “disconnect” regarding what happened. There are things that we would like to do, that I think there’s community support for, including maybe closing the streets. The city works well within its framework and I understand what its framework is. I wish its framework were a little different. There’s a lot of call to close the street for Summer Solstice. I could put on a bigger event for less money… and we can’t do it because we were told that the city attorney’s office won’t allow the street to be closed. Because if they allow us to close it, they may have to allow other organizations to be able to do that and the city doesn’t want to allow them to close the street. I think we have a fear about Skokie, Illinois. But I think creative solutions could be made, rather than what we have today. I would love to close the street, but I don’t want to bad mouth the city policies.
If you could wave a wand, what’s the one thing you’d wish for Main Street right now?
That’s a difficult question… I didn’t know I was going to be given a theoretical ‘wand’. Well, we got a new lighting assessment district down here, so the lights are safe and the street will be brightly lit for at least another five to seven years. The sidewalk cleaning is something that the merchants have been wanting for years, so we’ve got that done. I would have to say that if I could wave a wand, we’d get permission to close the street for special events.