Schenectady County

Business owners build bonds of sisterhood sharing Jay St. efforts

The hidden fuel behind the downtown resurgence may just be women.
PHOTOGRAPHER:

The hidden fuel behind the downtown resurgence may just be women.

Women now run a majority of the businesses on the Jay Street pedestrian walkway. They are also outpacing men in opening new establishments: In just more than two years, women have opened five new businesses, while just two men opened new shops. Women now own 57 percent of the businesses on the one-block walkway.

On the Jay Street block across from City Hall, women own nearly every building, from the Taj Mahal restaurant to the unopened laundromat and the tall apartment buildings that are under renovation.

Go a little further away from Proctors and you reach new businesses the Katbird Shop and the Night Sky Cafe, also run by women.

It’s not just retailers. Peek into the office buildings and you’ll see more women than ever before, Metroplex Development Authority Chairman Ray Gillen said.

Women are also running two of the 13 businesses in the Schenectady County business incubator — which is operated by a woman.

“Women are taking over the world,” Gillen said, half-seriously. “It’s really striking to me as we’re doing site visits. Women managers. A lot of the employees are women. We’re really seeing it in the work force.”

And the women are loving it.

“It’s family. There’s nothing anybody wouldn’t do for each other,” said Carol Markytan, who owns Glassy Beads.

lending a hand

That’s not just talk. When JoAnn Sifo, who owns Chez Daisie, is overwhelmed by customers, it’s the women on the street who drop what they’re doing and come help.

“When it gets busy, we’ve been known to help her wait tables,” said Markytan, who can easily leave her business because she shares her space with Nancy Niefield of Two Spruce Pottery. Others, like Lori Sendra of Earthly Delights, have employees who can watch the shop while she helps Sifo build her business.

Sifo wants to hire an employee, but the creperie isn’t quite profitable enough for that yet. Until then, the women are there.

Women have been downtown for decades. Orion and Earthly Delights, both run by women, opened in 1974. Open Door — owned by Janet Hutchison — opened in 1971.

But they’ve been joined by a flood of new female business owners, from Cottage Sweet Cottage to Glassy Beads.

Not everyone needs an extra pair of hands. But the new women — like any other new store owner — are in desperate need of reassurance and advice when business plummets. Unlike the men, they have found a ready source of support.

They’ve formed an informal ladies’ group, to which “no smelly men” are allowed.

Non-smelly men are welcome, particularly for birthdays and other parties. But they’re rare. Mostly, it’s the ladies encouraging each other and offering ideas.

They get together on Friday nights at Chez Daisie after all of the stores on the street close and eat crepes while they talk about work.

“We can commiserate with each other,” said Kathy Fitzmaurice, who opened the Katbird Shop two years ago. “You can’t talk to your friends or family about a retail business unless they have one.”

Sifo agreed. “They all think we’re crazy, anyway,” she said.

Crepes, commiseration

At a recent Friday session, Fitzmaurice told the women that when she complains about slow business, her non-business friends tell her, “Oh, advertise, it’ll pick up.”

Michelle Bynoe of Inspired snorted. Her friends tell her the same thing, she said.

“I’ve been in business 12 years, as if I don’t know about advertising,” she said in disgust. “Like you can afford advertising anyway.”

She moved around the corner onto Jay Street two years ago. Her business has slowed down since Christmas, too, she told Fitzmaurice. She had been open until 7 p.m. every night, but it was so slow that she cut back to 6 p.m.

“I went back to 6 and I’m fighting myself to stay open because it’s dead,” she said.

Even though she had no words of comfort for Fitzmaurice, her sympathy was all the other woman needed.

“If Michelle says, ‘I’m slow, too,’ then I know it’s not me — I don’t take it personally,” Fitzmaurice said.

The women talk for hours, but not once do any of them discuss spouses, boyfriends or children. Instead, they gossip about the best places to buy wholesale goods and the most effective ways to disperse the beggars who play bongo drums for tips on the steps to Center City.

Sifo swears by polka music, piped in extra-loud. The beggars usually leave the area when the sounds of accordions and trumpets blare out of her creperie, she said. Then she goes back to the gentle French music that she uses to encourage a relaxing cafe atmosphere.

“The neighbors know when the polka comes on, it’s loud but it will be over soon,” she said.

The women also giggle over their “horror” stories. A tale of people pouring soda in the Center City waterfall was topped by a report of beggars urinating in the waterfall. But Sifo beat them all. She once saw a man actually bathing in the waterfall, she said.

“Really bathing. His shirt was off,” she said, adding ruefully, “I get a front-row seat here. I see everything. But you know what, it’s [in] every city.”

The others agreed. When a group of rowdy teenagers raced by in the dark, they smiled.

“It’s some kids coming out of the movies. It’s good to see,” Markytan said. “Crossing the street, it’s almost like a city again.”

Sifo added cheerfully, “We have a traffic problem now!”

Business community

The women also use their gatherings as a business meeting — sort of an informal women’s business association. Sifo began by running through the three holidays coming up: Mardi Gras, Valentine’s Dayand St. Patrick’s Day.

“It’d be kind of fun if you guys can buy balloons and put them up outside your stores,” Sifo said before Mardi Gras. “Then after that, we’ve got Valentine’s Day. I’m going to put rose petals from Proctors down to my door. So if somebody wants to bring it down Jay Street, it’s $6 per bag.”

But the conversation quickly shifted back to jokes and stories.

The women said the real joy of the meetings is a chance to finally talk with the people they work by all day long. During the work day, they rarely even see each other, despite being only a few doors away.

They say they’re exhausted after a week of “performing” for their customers, but they still look forward to Ladies Night. It’s the one day a week that they can experience the community they’re trying to build downtown.

“I wouldn’t miss this for the world, this camaraderie,” Markytan said.

Categories: Schenectady County

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