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Chain Reactions

As chain stores move onto Main Street America, entrepreneurs are bracing for the fight of their lives. Will David or Goliath emerge victorious?

In 1992, business owners along Belmont Shore's main street shopping district were excited. While a recession was still gripping the rest of Long Beach, as well as most of Southern California, the retailers saw what they believed was a major sign of progress.

The Gap had moved to Second Street.

"That cracks me up now," says Debbie Parker, who operated Cherubs Children's Apparel across the street from the Gap at the time. "We were all so excited; we felt like we'd been `found.' We didn't think there would be a downside to chains. But was there ever!"

After 11 years on Second Street, Parker was forced out of business earlier this year when her landlord refused to renew her lease, opting instead to rent to a Mexican fast-food chain, Baja Fresh, for $20,000 more in rent per year.

Now the same beachside businesspeople who were excited six years ago fear their eclectic, boutique community shopping area will soon have all the character of a suburban mall. Chain stores and restaurants are moving onto Second Street in waves, and small-business owners feel they're being swept out to sea. A partial list of national and regional chains in Belmont Shore includes Rite Aid, Jack in the Box, Johnny Rockets, Banana Republic, Frame-n-Lens, Kinko's, Jamba Juice, Sunglass Hut and Starbucks.

Of course, Belmont Shore is far from alone. Independent business owners nationwide are seeing chain stores moving out of suburban malls or "big box" shopping centers and onto Main Street to compete with their businesses. The reason is simple: That's where the customers have gone.

That means increased competition for both customers and space, but it doesn't mean small-business owners should roll over and play dead. Belmont Shore's 15 blocks of retail space are filled with retailers who have fought back against the chains, found a market the big stores can't fill and discovered ways city officials could help. As a result, many of these stores have prospered. Not all have survived, and none believe the battle is over, but business owners in this area are learning to adjust to the changing face of retail.

Kurt Helin is the editor of two weekly newspapers in Long Beach and is a Belmont Shore resident.

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This article was originally published in the October 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Chain Reactions.

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