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Mill Ave. shops stick to roots

Stores remain institutions in changing downtown

 by Grayson Steinberg
 published on Wednesday, November 15, 2006

ASU graduate Matt Boeckman puts new cables on a bicycle at Tempe Bicycle Monday. /issues/news/698852
Ashley Lowery / THE STATE PRESS
ASU graduate Matt Boeckman puts new cables on a bicycle at Tempe Bicycle Monday.
 

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Three veteran Tempe businesses are still thriving downtown despite decades of redevelopment and threats to their survival.

Monti's La Casa Vieja, Tempe Bicycle and Those Were the Days! are among half a dozen downtown businesses that have remained at or near their original locations since at least the mid-1970s.

Monti's, a steakhouse at Rio Salado Parkway and Mill Avenue, first opened in 1954.

Michael Monti, who took over the restaurant from his father in 1997, said his business has succeeded due to consistent service, affordable food and its unique setting.

The restaurant's building was first constructed in the 1870s and was home to U.S. Sen. Carl Hayden.

"I have to give my customers a compelling reason to drive 20 minutes to get here," Monti said.

Most of his customers drive to his restaurant because it's isolated from the rest of downtown by parking lots and empty space, he added.

Few downtown businesses have been around for more than 20 years because most buildings in the area are newer than that, said Chris Wilson, vice president of
operations for the Downtown Tempe Community.

Still, more than 30 retailers and restaurants, of about 100 total, have been downtown at least 10 years. This is unique in the U.S., where half of small businesses don't make it past their first year, Wilson said.

Businesses go under for a number of reasons, including lack of experience with running a store and failing to capture target customers, he said.

"It's not even failure," Wilson said. "A lot of times people get tired of doing their businesses."

Victor Linoff, owner of Those Were the Days! on Mill Avenue, said he may retire within 10 years.

"When you've done anything this length of time, you begin to think about other directions," said Linoff, who has owned the store since 1973.

Those Were the Days!, which sells books on antiques, has survived because it's the only business of its kind downtown, Linoff said.

It has also changed with the times, he added.

When Those Were the Days! first opened, it offered primarily antiques, but now sells mostly books.

"Having that unique specialty allows us to survive in an environment where Borders is a block away," he said.

Linoff also fought off redevelopment efforts in the 1970s, when many other historic buildings downtown were demolished.

He purchased the building housing his business in 1981 to further protect himself.

But Tempe Bicycle owners Bud and Yvonne Morrison haven't been so lucky, even though they bought the building housing their bicycle shop.

The store, which first opened in 1976 and is now located at University Drive and Farmer Avenue, could have to move by next April to make way for the Farmer Arts District, Bud Morrison said.

This mixed-use project would be located near Farmer Avenue and University Drive, said Charles Huellmantel, the project's attorney.

A previous move from Sixth Street and Mill Avenue, the store's original
location, in 1988 where Coffee Plantation is now, caused hardship, Morrison said.

"We lost a lot of clientele," Morrison said.

He said he is looking for another location close to downtown so he can remain near his customers.

Morrison has seen the landscape of Mill Avenue change over the years due to the same redevelopment pressures that have forced him to consider new locations.

Until the 1970s, downtown was filled with an eclectic mix of mom-and-pop stores that included everything from a hardware store to a candle shop, business owners said.

Now bars and restaurants dominate downtown storefronts.

Even with all the changes the rest of downtown has undergone, Monti's La Casa Vieja has remained true to its roots, Monti said.

"We've tried to stay in a middle-class price range so we don't get out of reach for customers who don't have expense accounts," Monti said.

Reach the reporter at: grayson.steinberg@asu.edu.



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