What do we know about small businesses? We know that they generate jobs, foster innovation and strengthen communities. We know that strength begets strength: A thriving small business community grows organically, encouraging new entrants and disseminating the nuts-and-bolts knowledge that drives success.
Yet small businesses are vulnerable. Shifting markets, local economic downturns, higher interest rates, an owner’s ill health or employee malfeasance may abruptly put them out of business. To survive for five years is an achievement; for 50 a near miracle.
Despite all obstacles, some small businesses survive and thrive. They may stay in the same family for generations or pass through many hands, but they somehow prevail.
What separates success from failure? As the Eagles sang: “Who is gonna make it? / We’ll find out / In the long run.”
We tried to find out, guided by a powerful search tool: the 1961 telephone directory for Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak region.
The city was smaller then with a population of just 70,194 — El Paso County’s total population was 143,742, less than one-fourth of the estimated 645,000 today. We had yet to be awarded our own area code, sharing 303 with the rest of Colorado. Business was booming, judging from the 288 pages of yellow pages advertising, featuring everything from “abdominal supports” to “zippers — repairing.”
We compared ads and phone listings with today’s directory, as well as driving neighborhoods in search of businesses listed in the 1961 edition. Our goal: to identify small businesses serving the same market from the same location that they occupied 53 years ago.
Comparatively few remain.
Of the 40 businesses listed under “Shoes,” only one is still extant: Bon Shoe Repair at 2129 N. Weber St.
That pattern is repeated across almost every sector. More than 150 restaurants were listed in the 1961 yellow pages. Today, only eight are still in business, half under different names. Ruth’s Oven, a sedate family place located at 220 N. Tejon St., faded away as its clientele aged, and was succeeded by the far livelier Jose Muldoon’s in the 1970s. The Patty Jewett Grill still serves golfers and a neighborhood clientele in the historic city-owned clubhouse. Henri Ruiz’s eponymous Mexican restaurant in Old Colorado City was passed on to his daughter Carmen, who sold it three years ago. The new owner has renamed it Jorge’s, renovated the building, and the green chile is as fiery as ever.
Of the nightclubs listed, only two are still open — the Navajo Hogan, then known as the “Navaho Hogan Nite Club and Cocktail Lounge” and the Loop, then a Manitou Springs steak house with “dancing and entertainment nightly.”
Schumpeter’s wave of creative destruction seems to have swept over the city, leaving little behind. Was there any high ground, any place of refuge from the flood?
Yes. There’s a small commercial neighborhood close to downtown that houses six historic businesses within a few steps of each other.
The neighborhood begins with Burt’s Auto Supply at 501 W. Colorado Ave., which advertised engine rebuilding and transmission repair in 1961. Next door at 503 is the freshly updated bar/restaurant 503W, known as the Dutch Mill until a few months ago. Rex Tire, called Rex Retreading in 1961, is at 509, adjoining iconic neighborhood bar Benny’s at 517.
Diagonally across at 414 W. Colorado Ave. is City Glass, then as now an industry leader. Its one-third-page ad wasn’t modest: “If it’s glass, we have it!” Half a century later, they’re still in the yellow pages, slogan unchanged except for a single caveat: “Sorry, no auto glass!”
Across the street at 16 S. Walnut is another neighborhood eatery, Western Omelette. In 1961, the Pancake House occupied the building, serving “40 varieties of pancakes” as well as omelets. Then as now, it was a popular breakfast hangout.
A block and a half to the west at 620 W. Colorado, the Dale Motel (now the Springs Inn) advertised “30 modern units five minutes from town — it’s quiet!”
But not every business in the neighborhood survived. Lee’s Liquors, long established at 520 W. Colorado, closed its doors several years ago, as did its neighbor at 24 S. Walnut, Hayes Motors. Their period neon signs survive, forlorn reminders of the prosperous past.
Why so many survivors in such a small area? It’s an interesting location of mixed uses, low property values and high visibility on Colorado and Walnut.
Traffic counts are fairly high, yet businesses are close to the stable working-class neighborhoods of the Westside. It may have been easy to adhere to three fundamental precepts of small business: Keep overhead low; keep customer counts high; and don’t make your landlord rich.
“Colorado Avenue has always been sort of a premium location,” said Tim Leigh, who has brokered dozens of real estate deals in the area during the past 25 years. “But some of the property owners tend to be risk-averse. That may change as the economy improves.”
At 503W on a recent Saturday night, a youngish crowd gathered to listen to the Wayne Wilkinson Quartet’s masterful jazz. Twenty-something co-owner Nina Lee Ortiz, whose mother Mi Lee ran the Dutch Mill for 17 years, thinks the neighborhood has amazing potential. “That’s why we renovated,” Nina said. “We think that with City for Champions and everything that’s planned for downtown, we’ll do well.”
Up the street at Benny’s, it was old school all the way. Old Souls, a lively ’60s and ’70s cover band, played classic rock to an appreciative crowd whose taste in drinks ran to “a beer and a shot.” A friendly bartender welcomed a customer with a smile.
“Haven’t seen you since yesterday!” he said. “I was at Springs Orleans last night, and here I am at Benny’s. Looks like downtown is moving west.”