Ruth Summers is uniquely suited to her position, it’s almost a custom fit. First, she has retail experience. In Los Angeles, Ruth was an owner of the Kirkland/Summers Gallery, a highly successful contemporary art gallery featuring the work of iconic glass artists. Through her gallery, Ruth knows that owning and operating any small business is very difficult: it’s a 24/7 job.
What makes retail even more challenging is customer relations. No matter how badly your day is going, or how tired you become, the shopkeeper has to present a positive presence for every customer that walks through the door.
Second, Ruth’s work is overseen by a nonprofit organization. This experience is not new either. Right after she graduated from Richmond Professional Institute with a degree in interior design, Ruth went to work for a nonprofit: “Handwork Shop,” a craft guild in Richmond, Virginia.
Ruth became adept at navigating within the boundaries of a nonprofit structure and discovered that she had a talent for communicating with the sometimes-temperamental artist personalities.
At Handwork, Ruth also developed her grant writing skills. She secured the funding for outreach projects that would host after-school craft workshops in economically depressed neighborhoods.
It’s important to note that during her eight-year tenure at the Southern Highland Craft Guild, Ruth wrote grants, which would ensure the future financial health of the guild. In her last year alone, she pulled in grants totaling $800,000.
When a Grove Arcade storefront becomes available, Ruth has to fill it, but not with just any business. Starbucks has been turned down, as have all the other big-name retailers who’ve applied. First time entrepreneurs are usually not granted a lease either.
Businesses that secure retail leases do so by passing muster. They first have to explain their business plan to Ruth. Then come credit and background checks. As insurance, a business must show proof of sufficient capital to sustain them through the lean winter months.
She then has to step back and survey the mix of businesses which cohabitate the building. There are four broad categories of renters: shopping, essentials, dining and real estate. Within each of these, variety is essential to keep existing renters happy and shoppers interested.
“I’ve been through the coffee wars and the wine wars,” says Ruth. “Good communication on the front end is essential to keeping everyone’s business operating smoothly.”
If she’s interviewing, say a women’s clothing store, she gets the candidate together with existing clothing shopkeepers to check that there is no product overlap. Ruth sees her role as more of a consultant than a landlord.
“Time spent during the application process is valuable not just for me, but for the business owner too,” says Ruth. “A business that fails isn’t good for anyone, not the owner nor the building.”
Enforcing the retail leases back in 2004 has been the most painful part of the job for Ruth. What sustains her through the difficult times is the love of the arcade’s amazing architecture and history.
If the building can’t be operated in the black, all the work and millions of dollars spent on the restoration will have been for naught. Her sense of attachment and stewardship in this national treasure sustains her through the tough times.
E.W. Grove never saw his arcade finished, which spared him, no doubt, the pain of seeing it defaced by the government’s lack of taste. Grove’s vision of an elegant and unique shopping destination lives once again, thanks to everyone who cared. It has been kept alive by the dreams of a new generation of entrepreneurs and a cadre of caretakers.
The Grove Arcade, like all historic buildings, is a bookmark. It’s a flag between the pages of a story worth telling. The original author is long gone, but the book’s inspirational story continues to teach us that anything worth doing is worth doing well.
ARCADE BY THE NUMBERS
5 floors plus underground parking levels
22,000 sq. ft. of office space
66,000 sq. ft. of retail space
269,000 sq. ft. total space
a series of arches supported by columns or piers, either attached to a wall or freestanding.
a style of architecture that was most popular during 1890–1910, inspired by natural forms and structures, not only in flowers and plants but also in curved lines; architects tried to harmonize with the natural environment.
a grotesquely carved figure that serves as a spout to carry water from a gutter away from the building.
a strange, carved figure on Gothic buildings, not used as a drain-spout.
an architectural movement that began in the late 1740s in England. Its popularity grew rapidly in the early 19th century, when increasingly serious and learned admirers of neo-Gothic styles sought to revive medieval Gothic architecture, in contrast to the neoclassical styles prevalent at the time.
a clay material that has been molded and fired, often used for building ornaments or cladding. After 1890 all architectural terra cotta was glazed, allowing for a more durable and colorful ornamentation.
Special thanks to William F. Wescott for his contributions to this article, the Grove Arcade, and the city of Asheville.