Your Father is a Realist

Great article about immigrants. (I’m one.)

WSJ 11/2/2018

I own and rent out 25 mom-and-pop storefronts in Lakewood, Ohio, an inner-ring suburb of Cleveland. About 20% of my tenants are immigrants. I sell them the American dream—a chance to run their own business—and they sell beer, cigarettes, used furniture, and services like dry cleaning and haircuts. The stores are street-level with apartments above, like Disneyland’s Main Street, except no Mickey. The mice are real.

I rarely hard-sell foreigners to rent. They’re gung-ho from the getgo. American-born prospects, on the other hand, often need hand-holding. I sit with potential American tenants in diner booths and deliver my mini-lecture on happiness and business, mostly cribbed from Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert.

In his 2006 book, “Stumbling on Happiness,” Mr. Gilbert writes: “Indeed, in the long run, people of every age and in every walk of life seem to regret not having done things much more than they regret things they did, which is why the most popular regrets include not going to college, not grasping profitable business opportunities, and not spending enough time with family and friends.” I emphasize the “grasping profitable business opportunities” part.

If a store succeeds, it sticks around—10 years, sometimes 20 years. I’ve rented to a bar for 37 years. But there are many one-and-done stores. Gone in a year.

I rented to an immigrant from India whose Indian Food Emporium didn’t bring her happiness or money. Very few customers bought her basmati rice, turmeric and lentils. So she switched to beer, wine, cigarettes and lottery tickets—which worked. The store’s signage went from curlicue Hindi-esque lettering to skid-row neon almost overnight: “Bud Light,” “Lottery” and “Open.” The neon signs made it more difficult for me to rent the upstairs apartments to quality tenants. (“Quality tenants” means, in this case, residents who don’t need beer at 2 a.m. but need a good night’s sleep to get up for work on time.) Ultimately the Indian woman and her husband closed the minimart and opened an Indian restaurant two blocks away. That restaurant succeeded. Locals would eat Indian food, just not cook it.

In a few weeks, Dragana, a registered nurse from I rent storefronts to small businesses. Here’s what I learned from Dragana, Al and other entrepreneurs.

Serbia, is shutting down her resale furniture store after a year’s run. She works the night shift at a nursing home and pays $1,950 a month in rent for 1,850 square feet. That comes to $13 a square foot. Retail space doesn’t get much cheaper than that. (In Manhattan, retail space averages $653 a square foot.) Dragana wrote me, “We stop to invest two months ago and our sales are slower and almost next to nothing. I know that is not your problem but I wish you to understand.” I understand. Retail is a crapshoot.

Here’s what works in retail: bars, hair salons and dry cleaning. Al— whose real name is Abdullah—is an Iraqi who owns a barbershop called A Haircut Above. (The name “A Cut Above” was taken.) Al’s youngest son often plays in the store. Kids hang out in immigrants’ stores. I’ve rented to a Korean dry cleaner for 11 years. Now the eldest daughter is at Duke University studying public policy, and the son is at Bard doing computer science. I told the mom, “Tell your son to take a course from Walter Russell Mead before he graduates.” She wrote that down. I give free assimilation advice.

Besides immigrants, another subcategory of mine is hipster retail. This is a thing now, and not only on the coasts and in college towns. I rent to Cle Couture, a women’s clothing boutique, and to Beat Cycles—a bike store started by an English major who likes Kerouac. And I lease a store to a tattoo shop that is also an art gallery. Cool.

Immigrants don’t do cool. They do drudgery. Although immigrants’ kids sometimes do cool. Enri, a 20-something Albanian-American, wanted to open a streetwear store. Streetwear is oversize hoodies, tennis shoes and graphic T-shirts. He got his father, a valet parker, to cosign the lease. Enri painted the walls black and wanted to turn the floor black, too. He never got to the floor. He never got any merchandise, either. He ran out of credit, I think.

His father wasn’t much help. Enri said, “My father is an extremist.” No, Enri, your father is a realist.

Mr. Stratton is a landlord and musician in Cleveland.


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