Two of California Avenue's independent retailers, whose stores have contributed to the small-town charm that has long characterized Palo Alto's so-called "second downtown," have announced they plan to move out.
The owners of Accent Arts, an art-supply store located at 392 California Ave., and Village Stationers, at 310 California, say that customers' migration to online habits, combined with high rents, are prompting their decisions.
Kerry Hoctor, owner of Village Stationers, said he is looking for someone to take over the remaining 1 1/2 years on his lease of the 6,000-square-foot store at the corner of Birch Street.
"We were waiting for the remodel of California Avenue to see if it would invigorate the street, but there were the underlying problems of parking and retail in general, which has changed so much," he said.
When downtown competitor Congdon and Crome, a 110-year-old Palo Alto office-supply business, closed its doors in 2013, Hoctor took a chance and extended his lease to 2017. But with rents going up "it just became a losing proposition," he said. "You just need so many people to come through that door," to offset the rental costs.
"In the last three years we've been losing 10 customers a day. Two years ago, we had 20 more customers walk through the door each day. You can certainly see the trend," he said.
Technology is a main factor in the declining customer base, he said.
"The cell phone today replaces just about everything I sell in the store: pens, notebooks, photo albums, datebooks. It isn't what it used to be. We used to sell calendars and address books by the hundreds," he said.
Hoctor's parents started the business at Town & Country Village Shopping Center 50 years ago and moved it to Santa Cruz Avenue in Menlo Park in 1976. The California Avenue store was originally a small office-supply business on University Avenue in Palo Alto that Hoctor purchased in 1988 and then moved to California Avenue in 2002, he said.
"I think it's beautiful, but it hasn't translated (into improved business) for me. I think it will for someone else," he said.
Hoctor said he will try to employ his three full-time and three part-time workers at his other stores in Los Altos and Menlo Park.
When Village Stationers leaves, wholesaler Kelly Paper on Middlefield Road in south Palo Alto will be the last remaining office-supply retailer. Palo Alto has three high-end gift-and-card shops: Letter Perfect, Paper Source and Paperwhirl.
Accent Arts is also the last of its kind in the city, since its 65-year-old competitor, University Art, moved from downtown to Redwood City. Its owners blamed the move on high rents and a long renovation the building owner planned for the location at 267 Hamilton Ave.
Accent Arts posted a letter on social media stating that it would relocate.
"While we love our home at California Avenue, it's becoming too expensive to stay here, and we prefer not to pass those increased costs on to you. We plan to remain in Palo Alto, continuing to serve this community for years to come," the message stated.
Owner Gil McMillon said on Wednesday that he doesn't yet know what the business will do or when it will leave its current space.
"Soon," he said.
The Palo Alto City Council's decision this year to place a moratorium on the conversion of ground-floor retail space to offices is a good step, McMillon said, but it didn't come soon enough for his store. It's a conversation the council should have had five years ago if it intended to maintain the character of local retail, he added.
"They might have considered the approach of the Europeans with commercial condominiums. You go to Paris and you see all of these little shops, and you wonder how they can afford to stay open in Paris," he said. "They own their space. You not only have an asset, you have stability. Here, you lease and bleed forever.
"The fate of this place is that you'll have a whole bunch of people with a lot of money and no place to spend it. They will have to drive 20 minutes to buy anything they need," he said. "There will be nothing on this block other than food and (salons for) nails."
McMillon stopped and thought for a moment. There is one other independent retailer that is likely to remain: Keeble and Shuchat, the photography equipment store.
"He owns his building," McMillon said.