The owners of Broadway Paper and Coast in Bikes discuss small business.

Bricks and Mortar

Kate Strzok, owner, Broadway Paper
Carolyn Weber, owner, Coast In Bikes

Kate Strzok dreamed of one day owning a stationery store. She landed a part-time shipping and receiving job at Broadway Paper in the Third Ward and purchased the business a short time later, in 2009. Since then, Strzok has seen the Third Ward transform into a hotbed of activity. Carolyn Weber operated Coast In Bikes in Walker’s Point for five years until recently moving the business to Riverwest, where she has plans, in a partnership with serial entrepreneur and developer Juli Kaufmann, to open a 53-bed travelers hostel in a former Milwaukee Public Schools building that would also house the bike shop. Strzok and Weber, who traveled by bicycle from the Northwest Side on a bitterly cold morning, sat down at Broadway Paper to discuss the challenges and strategies of operating a small business in Milwaukee. – Moderated by Rich Rovito

A condensed version of this conversation was published in the January 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine’s cover story: Let’s Talk It Out.

Bricks and Mortar: Kate Strzok and Carolyn Weber

CW: The bane of retail is Amazon and online shopping. Customers come in and want you to have everything like Amazon and at their prices, but you can’t do that or you’re going to go broke. You can’t have their prices and pay $3,000 a month for rent.

KS: The previous owner built out the website and had an e-commerce site. That is one area of the business I have just let slip. I feel so bad because people will be like, “Your website sucks.” I know it does.

CW: I have the same problem.

KS: I’ve decided to celebrate the 10th anniversary of me owning the store I’m going to invest in a new website. Bite the bullet. Debuting May 2019, an awesome website with e-commerce.

CW: It says a lot to be a brick and mortar store and still be doing well. Go out and serve your niches. If you worry about your competition and try to be everything they are, we all just end up being the same.

KS: People are getting scared of being face to face. Just texting.

CW: Don’t want to deal with the person.

KS: We sell wedding invitations, that’s the bread and butter of the business. It’s a very tactile thing. I don’t know what I’m getting when I sit in front of a screen.

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CW: I’ve had one of my customers say, “You say hi every time I come in, and you remember my name.” That’s lost on millennials.

KS: We have people come in during their lunch hours and say, “Ugh, I had a terrible morning and just wanted to come here.” They hope that we cheer them up. And they also buy stuff.

CW: That’s right. I’ve got to buy a card for a birthday next week.

KS: We’ve been one of the longest-standing businesses in the Third Ward. I think we’re a pretty good anchor.

CW: People come to us because we have good, quality service. They like talking to an owner and being able to get their bikes fixed. It’s a one-on-one experience, whereas, you go into a bigger shop and you have no idea who is working on your bike.

KS: We have been here to see the changes and we’ve hung on. The No. 1 concern would be the rising rents in the Third Ward. The landlords have stuck their necks out in this neighborhood over the course of time. As the neighborhood really takes off, and obviously things are cranking up quite a bit, that should coincide with increased sales and foot traffic for us.

CW: I started really exploring what Coast In Bikes is, after three locations in five years. We’re struggling. You have to own your building, you really do. If you don’t, you still can make it, but it’s going to be harder. Buy your real estate, because if nothing else, you have real estate.

KS: I always thought that I was going to own a stationery store. I’ve always loved Broadway Paper. When I was in high school I would make my mom drive me here just for a birthday card.

 CW: I’m really happy with putting (the hostel) in Riverwest. It’s a great fit to use one of the surplus school buildings and turn it into something that’s going to generate money for this city. Hostel people typically spend money locally. They want to go to the coffee shop down the street that has the real feel of Milwaukee.

KS: Parking is also a concern. Since I have owned the store, I have seen the parking situation go from a non-issue to just out of control. My customers, they intend on paying the meter, but they can’t figure out how to do it. And then that reflects so poorly on us and really deters customers from coming to the Third Ward. They come in and they’re mad at us. They’re probably not going to come back until they’ve forgotten about that $27 ticket.

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CW: Any talk about maybe vouchers from the businesses that can be used for a half an hour or something? In Milwaukee, we’re very privileged with all the parking we actually have Downtown. People feel so entitled to it. In Milwaukee, it’s “I have to get free parking.”

KS: I will drive around for like half an hour.

CW: We need to change that attitude. Vouchers sometimes help with that. I’ve been to the (Historic Third Ward) Association’s website but there’s nothing about how to get here by some other means. They don’t push the fact that you have a streetcar going through here right now.

KS: I think they do now.

CW: There’s also buses that go through the neighborhood.

KS: In their defense, the association has done a lot of research about who the core customer is for the Third Ward. It’s the people who are driving into the neighborhood and parking. My core customer, you wouldn’t see them on a bike, unless it’s a pedicab and they’re sitting in the back. That’s just the reality.

CW: It’s completely opposite for me. I don’t need parking. We will only have six spots for the hostel and that’s more than enough. I’m not catering to people who drive. For the bike shop, however, parking has been an issue for me. When I was on Fifth Street, that was still meter parking and my customers would get tickets all the time. I would actually have a little jar on the counter so people could grab change and run out real quick.

“Let’s Talk it Out” appears in the January 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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