Stepping inside the storefront at 3270 24th St., it’s not immediately clear what kind of business it is. The space holds two retail outlets, plus a lawyer and an electronics repairman.
This may sound like a “man walks into a bar” joke, but it’s not — it’s the business model for many Latino business owners in the Mission.
“We help each other with rent,” said Binda Cano, the owner of Binda’s Boutique and holder of the lease at 3270 24th St. She added that the tenants might be looking for a fifth business to join them in their three-week-old venture.
They aren’t the only ones. As Latino-owned businesses that cater to Latinos struggle to survive in a neighborhood with rising commercial rents, many have taken to sharing space. Cano declined to say how much her rent is, but did say it is substantial because of the large space.
“This is the only way to hold it together,” Cano said.
And she should know. This is the third time in as many years that she’s moved her boutique to similar storefronts. A Guatemalan immigrant who lives in San Mateo, Cano began selling clothes through a catalog. Before she moved to 24th Street, she rented space with others first on 19th Street, then on 16th Street.
“I chose 24th Street because everything is here — the bus, the BART, cheap food,” she said.
There is no official signage on the shared storefront, just advertisements announcing the tenants’ services and a sign in Spanish soliciting another small business. The electronics repair business has a counter set up across from Cano’s boutique space. Next to that is the lawyer, who works from a small desk. The owner of the electronics repair shop, who declined to be named, moved from another shared space just down the street.
“We needed more space,” said one of the employees.
This is all part of the journey, Cano said. The destination: her own storefront in the Mission, a meeting place for Latinos throughout the Bay Area.
With only 39 percent of the population, Latinos are no longer the majority in the Mission, according to 2010 Census figures. But they still come to the neighborhood from all over the Bay Area, many because a part of their life is still here. They come to the churches, medical offices, restaurants and nonprofit service providers, said Dairo Romero of the Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA).
When MEDA offered free tax help to low-income residents, Romero helped many people from the East Bay, he said, from as far away as Pittsburg and Bay Point.
Romero has been working with small businesses on Mission and 24th streets for the better part of the last five years, and he’s seen successes and failures.
In 2010, MEDA opened a small business incubator next to its headquarters on 19th and Mission streets, called El Mercadito. Up to nine business pay between $250 to $1,200 for a sliver of space in which to build their customer base.
“It is an alternative way to start your own businesses,” Romero said.
Patricia Torres opened her shop Mystical Collections, which sells holistic and new age products, at El Mercadito in 2010. Earlier this month she had a grand opening at her new location, 3196 24th St.
Torres was the first to move her business out of the incubator. Since moving to 24th Street, her sales have doubled, and she was able to hire a full-time employee, according to MEDA’s newsletter.
Carmina Gonzales, who opened a gift shop called Wrap Your Dreams at El Mercadito, hopes to emulate Torres’ success. Like Cano, she initially sold merchandise out of catalogs — in her case it was makeup — and like Cano and many other women entrepreneurs in the Mission, she is a graduate of the the Women’s Initiative’s Alas program, which is partially funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Gonzalez said that sharing rental space with others requires negotiation. One of the tenants at the market couldn’t get along with the others and was asked to move, she said.
Gonzalez hopes to open her own store eventually, but right now that goal seems a bit far away, as her sales are down. She blames it on the economy and on the reduction in foot traffic along Mission Street since Muni began rerouting buses while the street is repaired.
Not all are as lucky as Torres. The Wholesale Fashion Shoe store on Mission Street, which was not part of MEDA’s incubator project, closed after little more than a year in business.
Cano has advised a friend who opened a flower store in the neighborhood just three months ago to rent to other businesses.
“One wants to succeed, but you also have to be realistic,” she said. “It’s not possible for businesses to make it on their own.”