Candy lovers are filling their pockets with the remaining chocolates, gummies and suckers before This & That candy store closes next month.
Andrea Graef, owner of This & That, said she is closing the East Liberty Street business — which opened in July 2010 — by the end of November due to lack of patronage, corporate competition and a rise in panhandling and crime in the area. Graef said the competition from nearby businesses such as CVS, 7-Eleven and the Tower Mini Mart on Maynard Street, as well as the Borders closure last month, contributed to her decision to shut down her store.
“The area has made a drastic change from when I first wanted to be down here,” she said. “It seems that the area has become kind of depressed.”
Like Graef, other business owners and operators in the area have recognized panhandling in the area as an issue that needs to be addressed. Russ Collins, executive director of the Michigan Theater, hired a security guard for the area in part because of the panhandling. However, he added that the hiring was not out of the ordinary.
“(Panhandling) is part of the downtown landscape,” Collins said.
Collins also went to other businesses on East Liberty asking for financial contributions to help pay for the security guard. But Graef said This & That did not help cover the costs because the security guard was for the graffiti alley, which This & That isn’t directly next to.
“The panhandling that was bothering me was the stuff in front of my store, so I’m not inclined to pay someone to help for a security guard,” Graef said.
Ann Arbor City Council member Sabra Briere (D–Ward 1) said though she doesn’t think panhandling is causing poor sales in the area, increased panhandling is a problem that needs to be addressed. But she said, regretfully, the city does not have enough funds to hire more police officers at this time.
“We don’t have a lot of flexibility when it comes to spending money for either providing services to people who are homeless or for putting more police on the street,” Briere said.
City Council recently requested a grant of federal funds given to the state of Michigan to hire more police officers. The city is also working to develop different staffing methods to station more current officers in the downtown area.
Though Collins said he couldn’t determine if there has recently been an increased number of panhandlers on East Liberty, he believes the issue is exaggerated by the media.
“(The coverage) plays on people’s fears and anxieties,” he said.
Other stores in the area are also slated to close soon. Graef’s announcement comes 10 days after Poshh owner Wendy-Batiste Johnson said her clothing boutique on East Liberty is expected to close on Oct. 30.
Graef cited the closing of Borders as a major catalyst in decreasing foot traffic and sales on East Liberty.
“When I did my business plan, (Borders) had 7,000 people on average a week through their doors — those people are gone,” Graef said. “It’s going to impact an area.”
She added that the increase in corporate franchises, such as CVS, in the area has impacted local business, since independent stores like hers aren’t able to compete with corporate competition.
Graef said the personal and unique experience independent businesses in Ann Arbor create for customers is lost when corporate businesses move in.
“The beauty of Ann Arbor is that everything was independent,” she said.
For Graef, closing her store isn’t easy. She said opening This & That was a dream of hers and was very rewarding, even with the struggles she faced. She added that leaving her loyal customer base will be difficult, but she knows the store cannot remain open.
“I’ve had a lot of great support, a lot of people coming to see me these last few weeks and telling me that they’re very sad … so that makes me feel good and bad at the same time,” Graef said. “I feel like I’ve let the community down by closing, but there’s only so much you can do if the sales are not coming in to support the store.”
With no current plans to reopen in the future, Graef said everything in the store, including the candy supply, has to be sold. Graef added that she hopes the area and economy will rebound, allowing another independent business owner to have a meaningful experience opening their own store.
“I think it will turn around … I mean, I’m an optimist on that. I have high hopes for it,” Graef said. “Someone else will move in, someone else will try something. That’s the nature of small businesses — someone keeps trying their dreams, so we’ll see.”
— Daily Staff Reporter Chelsea Landry, Benjamin Seidman and Dana Delvecchio contributed to this article.