Written by The Business Journal Staff
Top Drawer, a boutique known for its Vera Bradley handbag and luggage collection, is facing some challenges ahead should it remain in the small space beside La Boulangerie, as competitor Paper Source is slated to open in Fig Garden this fall. While Paper Source does not compete with the small store’s mainstay Vera Bradley products, it does compete with 25 percent of Top Drawer’s business, which is dedicated to stationery.
Top Drawer, a fixture at the center since 2010, started growing the stationery portion of its business a few years ago, said owner Jane Saunders, in response to its customer base, which seemed to enjoy the once small selection of hand-crafted cards and paper supplies offered under the Vera Bradley label.
Women’s accessories and stationery pair well together, Saunders said. The success of the little Fig Garden store even lead Saunders to expand and open a second location in River Park last April.
Now, just as Saunders started to get comfortable juggling the two stores, she said she was blindsided to read in the newspaper that Paper Source was coming to town. Just days prior, she had finished renegotiating an extension on her lease and was sent the paperwork to sign. She hadn’t yet signed when she saw the news.
“This is a problem,” Saunders said. “While it’s not the main part of the business, it is 20 to 25 percent of the business, and if I lose that, it’s a big chunk. Do I like Paper Source as a store? I love it. I go into their stores all the time. I probably even modeled a little bit of my thought process getting started after what they do.”
Last weekend, Saunders said she ventured into a Paper Source while in Pasadena, just to double check how much of the same products were sold in both stores. “The duplication is just about 100 percent,” she said of the stationery Top Drawer and Paper Source both sell.
Saunders, who is in her 60s, said she is unsure of what to do now and wishes she had some warning.
“There are many sides to this issue. Rouse [Fig Garden’s property management company] has its side, Paper Source will have its side, and we have ours and I think there is no reason why all three can’t live together, but you can’t pit one against the other because the little guy is going to lose,” Saunders said. “We don’t have the resources and there is nothing about this that puts us on a level playing field. If these developers want only national tenants, it’s okay and they need to be honest about that. They just owe you enough time to turn your business around, get your emotions in check and your feet underneath you so you can come up with a plan.
“I understand business is business and this is about money and power, but it doesn’t have to be. You can have it all. I really believe they can have money and power and also be kind and fair. It takes a little effort and communication skills and it takes honesty and being upfront.”
Rouse Properties management would not comment on the situation with Top Drawer, but did provide the following statement:
“As the owner of the premier shopping and gathering destination in Fresno, we take great pride in offering our customers, friends and families a high quality mix of best-in-class national and regional retailers as well as popular local favorites. We strongly value supporting this community and its local business owners, and are thrilled and honored that many of them have chosen Fig Garden Village as their home. We are committed to ensuring the success of all of our tenants by providing them with the resources and support they need to thrive.”
When Saunders contacted Rouse Properties staff to inquire about why she wasn’t given a head’s up about the possibility and eventual reality of Paper Source coming, she said she was told Rouse was unaware that stationery was part of her business.
According to Top Drawer’s lease, which is up in April, the store sells Vera Bradley. Stationery is not officially listed as part of the business. Saunders said the lease has not been updated since she moved into the center and she didn’t realize she needed to call and change it so management would know stationery had expanded to become a large portion of her business.
Although not specified on the leasing agreement, Saunders said management still should have known. Showcase advertisements throughout the complex, which tenants can opt to pay for, clearly list Top Drawer’s stationery items and brands like Kate Spade and Waste Not Paper (the wholesale division of Paper Source). Fig Garden Village’s directory even lists Top Drawer, along with Hallmark, under the stationery section.
In addition to claims that management was unaware Top Drawer sold stationery, Saunders said she was told they assumed she would not be renewing her lease because she opened a second location in River Park. Since she was in negotiations for a new lease for several months, Saunders said she doesn’t understand why management would assume she didn’t want to continue leasing the Fig Garden Village space.
“This store just fits in Fig Garden; everything about it belongs here,” Saunders said, adding that the River Park location was meant as an expansion to bring Vera Bradley to a broader demographic. Saunders said she never intended to close the Fig Garden store, which she refers to as “her baby.” She did, however, request a shorter lease simply because of her age — she doesn’t want to retire, but wanted to be prepared, she said, in case health issues arise.
While Saunders is sad about how she found out about Paper Source and is now unsure how to proceed, she said she does have options. She could close and focus on the River Park store, which she thinks is what most people in her situation would do, or she could take her inventory to a shopping center down the street — either to her original space on Palm and Bullard avenues, which just became available again, or to a second center in the area, whose owner has requested she open a Top Drawer there several times. Alternatively, she could stay put and take on the challenge of reinventing a quarter of her business.
All these options are tough at her age, Saunders said, but at least she has choices. Most small businesses faced with a large competitor coming to their area only have one option: to struggle until they eventually close. That’s the real problem, Saunders said. She doesn’t want to see other small businesses pushed out as more national chains make the move to the Central Valley.
“We need diversity, we need to be inclusive and we need independents to make it interesting, otherwise all communities become the same,” Saunders said. “We need the big might of the national chains in Fresno because otherwise we’re not part of the national story, but we also need businesses like Top Drawer because we’re unique.”
Not only are small businesses unique, they are also the backbone of the community, she said.
“When a school needs auction gifts for the soccer team or backpacks for the cheer squad, where do they go? They don’t go to Target or Macy’s, they come to people like us, and nine times out of 10 we step forward and help,” Saunders said. “What will the community do if we’re all gone? We talk about going back to Main Street and there is some thought that millennials want a more Main Street feel, so there is hope, and I think we have to encourage that.”