Moving On: Two small businesses lose their leases

They were two small businesses in tiny, temporary structures placed at one end of a parking lot. But Boma Fine Art and Jump Gourmet Espresso, businesses located in the Diamond Parking lot at the corner of Broadway and East Mercer Street, have become retail casualties.

Both businesses received sudden notice that their month-to-month rental arrangements had been terminated by the parking company. Reasons for the eviction went unsaid, but the timetable was clear: Each received a scant 15-day notice to vacate on Oct. 27. The letters, on Diamond Parking Services letterhead, were brief and to the point: "Please accept this as our fifteen (15) day notice to terminate our agreement dated August 19, 2004."

There is considerable speculation about the future use of the property. A vacant lot would be ripe for redevelopment, and given that next door the Jade Pagoda closed its doors a few months ago such suspicions are understandable. One rumor has the property being used as a staging area for the Brix mixed-use development being built at the old Safeway site across the street. A call to Diamond Parking went unreturned as this paper went to press, but whatever the property's upcoming use, it is certain that two small business owners will not be a part of it.

Boma Cho's smile and good spirits belie the fact that he will close his shop of two years sometime this week. Cho's wares, including the numerous shirts with silk-screened images of Che Guevara, Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix, fill the small space. The clothing is joined by original paintings as well as CDs. A multi-faceted artist, Cho shakes his head at the way he was treated.

"Whether I like it or not I must move," he said. "But there is some cruelty to the situation. If you've had a relationship for two years with someone, why would you not give some foreshadowing of what would happen? Some common decency would have been helpful to me. Two months, perhaps, not two weeks. What do they think this will do to a small business?"

Cho said he called repeatedly to ask for an explanation or an extension. Those calls, he said, were never returned.

Cho, who paints, plays music and records CDs in addition to making silk screened clothing, has found storage in Fremont and is actively looking for another location. He expects he'll find something, but has no expectation that he'll be able to find something quickly. Cho was born and raised in Cameroon, and came to the United States in 1980 to attend college at Gonzaga University. He next lived in London, where he studied film, lived in Hollywood for a stretch, then Canada, before relocating to Seattle. His intended career in the film industry did not pan out. But he started painting, and he picked up a guitar. Friends told him his art, and his music, were good. His move to a full-time artist had begun.

"I didn't know I could do art at a high level until the late '90s. I feel fortunate that I was able to make this transition," he said.

He gets his merchandise from thrift stores, then adds his own designs. He likes the fact that he's able to recycle items that others might want to throw away. It's possible that he's sold the same shirt to someone who had previously donated it. He keeps his smile but projects a resigned air of disbelief at the way his departure came about.

"I think they have no understanding of relationships or of community," he said. "And it is a community here. It isn't good to come and hurt anybody."

The economic blow from having to shut down so quickly is considerable. Cho makes his living by selling his art. It's been a successful venture, but not one that leaves a great deal of financial elbow room.

"I'd surely rather stay on the Hill working," he said. "But that is not my reality. I will miss the community, people coming by, sharing ideas, hanging out. That aspect is the real loss. There will be a loss when we are gone."

Stephen Johnson, who owned Jump Gourmet Espresso in the shack across from Boma Cho Art, first got a sense that change might be in the works in September. At that time he received notice that his monthly rent would increase from $600 to $800 - a one-third increase, and a substantial hit for a small business such as his. But it was a hit he was prepared to take. He thought he was engaging in a dialogue about signing a lease when he learned Diamond Parking had a different plan.

Johnson received a letter identical to Cho's. The letter from Diamond came a few weeks prior to what would have been Jump's one-year anniversary.

"It felt like getting fired and losing a family member on the same day," he said.

Johnson's last day of operation was Nov. 7. His anniversary would have been Monday, Nov. 13.

Johnson had worked locally in the coffee industry for nine years. He bought what had been Le Petit Café in the Diamond parking lot, renamed it to give it a fresh start. Taking the plunge to running his own business was a personal and financial risk, but one he had wanted to do for a long time.

The business had been going really well. He inherited little by way of an established customer base. But during his year on Broadway Jump's business expanded three-fold, enough so that he was able to hire an employee.

As for recourse, Johnson shrugs and acknowledges he had none. While his landlord may have behaved in a cold and indifferent manner, such were the legal realities of a month-to-month lease.

"I called and asked what was going on and was just told that they had a different offer and wanted to go in a different direction," he said. "I knew something would happen to this property at some point, but I thought I'd have more time. I wouldn't have bought the coffee shack if I knew I'd only have a year."

In the last week he's packed the equipment, found storage for the shack, which he's trying to sell. He's moving forward and looking for a place to open his own espresso café. He wants to stay on Capitol Hill, a large challenge in such a coffee-rich environment.

"My customers were amazing. I saw great people every day, and really got to know them. I'll really miss them if I can't end up on the Hill," he said.

Perhaps surprisingly, Johnson is fairly positive about all the development on Broadway, even the Brix project that may have led to losing his business.

"This has been horrible for me, of course, but great for the Safeway site. Broadway had felt like it had gone downhill. I think these projects will make it a nicer place."

Doug Schwartz is the editor of the Capitol Hill Times. Reach him at editor@ capitol or 461-1308.[[In-content Ad]]