Sad news arrived in my inbox over the weekend: Old City’s Three Sirens Boutique is closing its doors on January 12th. I chatted with owner Emma Carpenter about why she’s closing, the difficulties she faced as an independent boutique owner in Philly, and what she thinks Old City needs to be a thriving retail destination. Her answers might surprise you, and they’ll certainly give you an interesting look at what it’s like to be on the other side of the counter.
“Everyone keeps saying that,” Emma says with a not-so-slight hint of exasperation when I tell her I’m disappointed to hear of the store’s closing. “But no one comes to shop, so you can’t have a great store and [sell] great things without a consistent customer base.” She took over Three Sirens (which has been an Old City staple since 2005) in 2011, after being in the corporate world in New York. Her merchandise is trendy, and far less expensive than what you’ll find at other Old City boutiques like Third Street Habit, Sugarcube and Vagabond (most of her stock is priced well under $100). The main issue she noticed? Philly shoppers won’t hike their damn butts down to Old City.
"It seems that people don't really travel outside of their neighborhoods that often, and they stay comfortable in where they are. I can't tell you how many times I heard, 'Oh, I meant to come down there,' and it's not until eight months later that they actually come," Emma says. "A lot of people told me they moved away. I find it really strange that when I'd ask them where, they'd say, 'Center City.' Really? Center City is too far to walk on a weekend? People here just don't seem to take public transportation as much [as they do in New York]. They get stuck in their five-block radius."
I wanted to balk, to cry: No! That's not true! You've read us all wrong! But then I thought about my own shopping habits, and the shopping habits of my friends and co-workers. Our offices are at 18th and Market, a mere 15 blocks away from Old City, which is a do-able walk (well, for some), a short cab ride or an even shorter subway ride. Still, bring up the possibility of heading to Old City for a quick lunch-break shopping trip to a co-worker, and she'll look at you like you've asked her to go to Alaska for a cup of coffee. And I don't totally blame her. Up here on the 36th floor, with new emails constantly dinging their arrival and phone ringings and deadlines looming, Old City can seem like it's on the other side of the moon. And Barneys is just so much closer.
Thankfully, my job forces me to shop outside the box. But it's easy to get lazy, to shop the retail corridors closest to you, or—better yet—to shop online. So before you balk about tired Philly/New York comparisons, think about it: Where's the furthest you'll go to shop? And when you do go out, are you "just looking" or do you actually plunk down your plastic? How often do you really shop at brick-and-mortars as opposed to shopping online? "There will always be people who want that tactile experience of the store, but I think a lot of consumers have gotten numb to that personal experience," says Emma. "[The boutique] is a small space, and I want to say hello and be friendly, but some people would almost act annoyed and say, 'Oh, I'm just looking.' I'd think, okay, I'm not Macy's. It seems people don't appreciate customer service anymore."
Another factor she sees as an impediment to retail success in Old City? Actually getting people to realize it's there. To me, this sounds crazy. When I think of shopping in Philly, Old City's strip of boutiques along North 3rd is one of the first places that comes to mind. But according to Emma, I'm in the minority: "The one thing I've heard consistently is, 'I didn't know there were so many great stores here. How long have they been here?' Some are new, yes, but for a lot of them, you're talking eight to 20 years. I was always surprised. It's not like this popped up two or three years ago," she says. "There needs to be better promotion about retail down here." And lunch spots, too, she notes, in order to grab people from local businesses during the lunchtime rush, and pull them off of Market Street to shop.
"As a consumer, know that just because somebody's doors are open doesn't mean they're necessarily doing well. Don't assume everyone else is buying something when they come in here," she says. That will certainly change in the next two weeks, as everything in the store is discounted at 60 percent off. In the meantime, shop outside your box. And if you have a particular favorite local boutique? Buy things there. Even if they're in Old City and you live all the way in Center City.