Josh Center didn’t go to Burning Paradise movie rental store to become a zombie, but when the opportunity arose, it was too good to pass up.
After all, the 26-year-old Albuquerque resident says his “big love” is horror movies, and this particular application to act in a locally shot zombie flick required no eating of brains, no gnawing of bones, no emerging from graves.
All it took was a conversation with Kurly Tlapoyawa, co-owner of Burning Paradise at 800 Central Ave. S.W.
“I was talking to him and he said, ‘Hey, you want be a zombie?’ ” Center recalls.
It was a conversation, Center says, that came about only because he had gotten to know Tlapoyawa – a conversation that might occur between friends.
In the competition between small local businesses and big national stores, knowing customers well enough to offer them, say, a role in a zombie movie – or more commonly, to greet them by name – demonstrates a kind of relationship that, along with distinct merchandise, is helping the neighborhood shop hold its own against corporate giants.
At stake, local business owners say, is not just money, but the vitality of a community’s soul, a city’s sense of self.
Next to Burning Paradise’s front counter, a half-constructed go-go girl cage – sans dancer – stands a few feet off the ground. Red lights encircle its base, and black text marking the bars as PVC pipe can be seen along their length.
“We’re the only video store with a go-go girl cage,” Tlapoyawa says. “I need to finish it.”
He says the cage is just one aspect of the store’s distinct blend of merchandise and style separating it from places like Blockbuster Video and Hollywood Video. Another is the store’s selection of foreign and domestic videos, some so obscure they’re still looking for a distributor.
“Most of the people who come in here, they want to see different stuff,” he says. “That’s where mainstream places fail. They don’t offer that variety.”
By picking up where mainstream stores leave off, Burning Paradise’s film collection has grown from 300 titles to more than 4,000 in the nearly two years of its existence, Tlapoyawa says. The collection includes gay erotica, cult movies, 1980s comedies, kid-friendly animations, martial arts films, foreign films with a focus on Asian cinema, and psychotronic films, a term describing low-budget, in-your-face independent movies.
“That’s how we’ve survived so far,” he says. “That’s how we’re going to survive.”
It’s a strategy of offering the unusual that Martha Doster, owner of Martha’s Body Bueno at 3105 Central Ave. N.E., has used to help her business survive for 30 years.
“These days with so much big business around, and so much of it becoming really convenient for customers to just do everything in one place, really the only way to survive is . . . to take care of your customers,” she says. “Make sure you have things available they can’t get elsewhere.”
The shop’s wares include jewelry, lotions, oils, perfumes, lingerie, cards, handbags and any other item that piques Doster’s interest. But it’s the shop’s customizable scents – incorporated into perfume, massage oil, lotion, bubble bath and bath gel – that stand out as one of its most distinct offerings.
“You can buy perfume, or buy somebody else’s blend, but here you can create your own,” she says. “They (customers) like coming in and blending their own signature scent.”
In her 30 years in business, Doster says she has seen more high-end and low-end shops appear, leaving businesses like hers – with price ranges somewhere in the middle – fighting for sales.
It’s a change inspiring her to focus more on supplying hard-to-find, obscure goods that bigger businesses haven’t picked up. But finding that newest thing is becoming more of a challenge, she says, because of the speed at which information moves with modern communication technology.
Still, flexibility and responsiveness are the strengths of small business, she says, and reacting to customers’ demands on the fly is something they can do that larger businesses cannot.
“You can respond to the needs of your customers, whereas in a big box store, it is what it is,” she says. “It’s not likely to change.”
When it comes to staking out territory inside someone’s thoughts, small-business owners say big retailers – with the dollars to unleash national marketing campaigns – have a huge advantage.
“There’s no other store in town that’s quite like mine, but there’s plenty of other stores that sell jewelry or sell lingerie or sell body care,” Doster says. “You have to be able to get those people who never heard of us here, and advertising can be really expensive.”
Besides bigger advertising budgets, larger companies also command a dedicated marketing staff, Doster says. It’s tough to compete when businesses like hers often require owners to split their time between being an accountant, marketer, manager and anything else filling up the long list of a shop’s needs.
“You have to do everything,” she says. “It’s very difficult.”
Ellen Tolley, spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation, agrees that small retailers struggle to compete with the advertising of large retailers. However, she says there’s a noticeable advantage for the little guy when it comes to community outreach.
“It is very easy for small-business owners to be visible in their communities, because small-business owners have always been the face of their company versus a larger chain store that comes into town and first needs to create a relationship with people in that city,” she says. “If Mr. Johnson has always owned the shoe store, you see Mr. Johnson as an extension of his company.”
In Mr. Tlapoyawa’s case, marketing for Burning Paradise comes across as a side effect of simply being an active and passionate member of the independent filmmaking community.
He has acted in local films and packaged three on a DVD label using the store’s name. Every two weeks, Burning Paradise, along with the weekly Alibi, sponsors a midnight movie at the Guild, the independent cinema in Nob Hill. In 2004, the store sponsored TromaDance, a film festival geared toward low-budget, independent films.
“The store’s basically become a hub for local filmmakers,” he says. “They all rent their movies here, talk to each other here. They have casting calls here.
“We’re the guys who care about the local filmmakers.”
If you ask small-business owners, dollar bills are more than just profits and losses; they’re a big green thread woven through the fabric of society that can change its shape depending on how one guides the needle.
Spend on local businesses, they say, and reap benefits for the community that go well beyond satiating your latest desire.
Shop at only chain stores – whose owners, often stockholders, have little direct concern for the company’s local impact – and watch a community’s social, economic and cultural well-being lose out, they warn.
“It’s not just the equation of ‘Where can I get the best deal?’ – but ‘How is my community going to be impacted by where I shop?’ ” says Elissa Breitbard, president of the Albuquerque Independent Business Alliance board of directors. “That answer is not just in Albuquerque consumer hands. . . . It’s a nationwide issue.”
Breitbard says money spent on local businesses goes back to the community far more than money spent at a chain store. Benefits include a bigger tax base, the retention of a unique identity for the city, and a strengthening of the bond between a city’s residents.
“Imagine what Albuquerque would be like without those (small businesses),” she says. “This risk of not having that is . . . an Anywhere, U.S.A., kind of town.”
According to a December 2002 study of consumer spending on local and chain stores in Austin, $100 in consumer spending on a local business generated $45 in economic impact for the community. In contrast, $100 spent on a national chain store generated only $13.
The difference lies in the fact that small businesses employ locals, buy supplies locally and spend their profits locally, according to the study.
Geoffrey Miller, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico, refers to a community’s level of beneficial cooperation, economic and otherwise, as “social capital.”
“Small businesses that are community-owned and -run tend to be a lot socially healthier in terms of promoting a community’s spirit,” he says. “What you get with Wal-Mart is not just cheaper goods but an erosion of social capital.”
It’s a chipping away instigated by the separation between a corporation’s stockholder owners, managers, employees and customers, he says.
“By contrast, flourishing small businesses . . . where regular customers can get to know the owner on a first-name basis, see them around town in other contexts, other restaurants, other shops . . . it makes the economy socially real for people,” he says. “It offers a sense of mutual responsibility, friendliness, trust. All the things that make for a community we want to live in.”
But Tolley with the National Retail Federation says many consumers enjoy the predictability that comes with the standardized shopping experience of chain stores.
“As a consumer, if you travel anywhere, it can be comforting to stay at a hotel that you’re familiar with, eat at a restaurant you’ve been to before, shop at a store where you know what size you are, and you know what products they have, versus constantly experimenting with new retailers,” she says. “It all goes back to consumer preference.”
Breitbard admits consumers occasionally prefer the convenience and low prices of bigger stores, and she doesn’t expect anyone to shop only at small local businesses.
“We’re not purists,” she says. “We sometimes need to shop at the big box. It’s more just raising awareness of what percentage of our spending is going to locals.”
“It doesn’t need to be a big, overwhelming, ‘I’m going to switch everything,’ ” she says. “You can drive yourself crazy. The point is to have good quality of life.”
If you’ve ever wondered how much a city councilor can spend on local businesses in one week, the Albuquerque Independent Business Alliance may give you a chance to find out in July.
The organization of independently owned local businesses has loose plans for city councilors to enter such a contest as part of Independence Day celebrations, says Elissa Breitbard, president of the alliance’s board of directors.
If that falls through, there are other activities the organization is considering as it continues on its mission of keeping Albuquerque unique by supporting local independent businesses.
Need a networking event? Check. Want educational seminars on the legal, financial and marketing aspects of running a small business? On the way.
Breitbard says reaction to the 80-member alliance since its founding two years ago has been “really positive.” Still, she would like to see more join up.
“We have so many resources in New Mexico for small business, but I think one of the big problems . . . is how do you get small businesses in touch with the resources?” she says. “If AIBA can somehow be a bridge . . . that would be a great role.”
She says other plans include producing discount cards for members and finding a way to coordinate purchases among small businesses to command better prices for the goods.
“It’s the collective power of working together that we hope will give us an advantage as small businesses,” she says.
For more information, visit www.keepitquerque.org or call 400-0816.