By DEREK THOMPSON
Derek Thompson/Telegram Bob Finley, owner of Finley's Mens Wear, 325 N. Main St., stands among the racks of clothing at his store.
Derek Thompson/Telegram Eric Smith, owner of Pearl's Sports Shop, 312 N. Main St., stands behind the counter of his new business. Smith said he is learning the ins and outs of running a business from other local business owners.
If Eric Smith's life wasn't on the line, he never would have opened a business in downtown Garden City.
For Smith, owner of Pearl's Sports Shop, everything happens for a reason.
"I got really sick and basically was on my deathbed. I didn't have insurance at the time, so I had a lot of medical bills," Smith said.
Smith had ulcerative colitis, a sickness similar to Crohn's disease that afflicts the colon. He lost 65 pounds, and medicine wasn't helping. He was in the hospital for more than two weeks in Wichita, he said. He wasn't in good shape.
But, things turned around for Smith.
"Those (doctors) basically saved my life, so I didn't want to declare bankruptcy. I wanted to do everything in my power to pay them back," Smith said.
The 37-year-old said he had about $6,000 in savings and started selling hats, jerseys and other memorabilia out of his home. After that, he moved into Mj's Barbershop, selling sporting apparel and products for about a year, before eventually settling into his own space at 312 N. Main St.
Smith was forced to move out of Mj's Barbershop when he learned that state regulations don't allow two businesses to occupy the same location. Either Smith and Mo Silva of Mj's had to put up a dividing wall, or Smith had to relocate. Smith was planning to expand eventually, so he decided to move out.
The Main Street location that formerly housed Mi Amor Lingerie was vacant, so Smith set up shop, expanding his offering of sporting products, such as jerseys, hats, wallets, flags, lanyard, mugs, tumblers, and more. He's been in his current location since September.
Smith's passion for sports runs deep. He played baseball at Garden City High School and went to Butler County Community College for two years. He was drafted in the 48th round his freshman year by the San Francisco Giants, and went in the eighth round his sophomore year to the Houston Astros. He played five years with the Astros from 1995 to 1999, before he moved up to AA and eventually blew out his arm, ending his pitcher career.
In choosing the name for his business, Smith wanted a name that meant something to him. Smith's middle name is Earl, named after his grandfather. When Smith played pro baseball, he earned the moniker Earl the Pearl, often being referred to as Pearl by his teammates.
Smith, who also works a full-time job at Lewis Motors, is learning the ins and out of entrepreneurship. For help, he's turned to several downtown Garden City business owners.
"The best way to learn is to just to pick other people's minds that have been here. I've got a lot to learn, and I look forward to that," Smith said.
One of his business mentors is Bob Finley, owner of Finley's Men's Wear, 325 N. Main St.
"I talked to Bob a lot about a lot of stuff that goes on here. He kind of helped me out," Smith said. I've talked to a lot of people downtown. They've kind of helped out with how to advertise and what to expect."
And Finley is one who knows what to expect, having worked on Main Street for 51 years. He's owned Finley's Mens Wear for 31 years and has worked in the same location for 47 years.
He remembers when downtown Garden City was in its heyday.
"It was a hustling, bustling place. It was the shopping center of western Kansas," Finley said. "Even grocery stores were downtown, drug stores, shoe stores, jewelry stores, men's stores, dress shops, you name it."
When Finley came to work downtown, he recalls that there were about a dozen different places to eat in the immediate downtown vicinity, a far cry from the current crop of three eateries downtown.
Though downtown Garden City has since evolved into a different kind of shopping destination, Finley has strived to keep shoppers coming downtown.
"It's called quality merchandise and customer service," Finley said, adding that he pays attention to the customer and listens to the needs and wants of shoppers.
"Our little motto is whether you dress up or down is your business, but to help you dress well is our business," he said.
Finley said that despite the national recession, Garden City has been largely shielded from nationwide trends.
"It's affected everybody a little bit, but maybe not Garden City, or western Kansas, as bad as it has say the metro areas," Finley said. "But business has been good. We're not washed up; everything's doing really good."
The Main Street location that currently houses Finley's has been kind to business owners. Finley said there has been a store in the location for 105 years. Each of those stores has been a men's clothing store, he added.
As a longtime business owner, Finley has years of experience in every aspect of entrepreneurship. And for a new small business looking to set up shop in the heart of Garden City, he has some advice.
"Take care of the customer. That's the thing. And then try to have a product that you can stand behind," Finley said.
Finley says that his product is not "the real high priced stuff, but we're the upper-middle class, moderate clothing."
Though many downtown stores may be geared toward upper-middle class shoppers, Finley said, there's possibly something for everyone.
"Downtown is not — I'll put it like this — it's not a discount big-box center," he said.
Looking to the future of Main Street's business climate, Finley said, anytime there's activity downtown it's good for business, referring to the proposal to utilize the historic Windsor Hotel as a senior living center.
Finley said the effects that the proposed major retail shopping center east of town would have on downtown businesses remain to be seen.
"It's 50-50. It could bring more people into town — maybe it will, maybe it won't," he said.
When families head out of town to shop in cities such as Wichita or Colorado Springs, Colo., they have a mapped out itinerary of shopping areas to patronize, hitting many areas of town, Finley said. That same kind of mindset may permeate into Garden City, as shoppers travel here to do business, hitting the big-box retail centers, as well as downtown, he said.
"Downtown's a good little place, and I think Garden City's got one of the better downtowns of anywhere in the state of Kansas, to tell you the truth," he said.
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