There is hyper and then there is Hernando Perez. After toiling for big chain pharmacies for 20 years, he opened his own on Landis Avenue in 2013 and hasn’t stopped moving, talking, and helping customers since. There’s so much socializing there, he needs a soda fountain like the old downtown pharmacies, Winslow’s and Sun Ray. (Hernando’s Hometown Pharmacy does have a free coffee bar).
I wasn’t even inside and a customer named Maggie held the door. I said it was my first visit and she replied, “It’s nice in here. You should give it a try.”
I’ll be honest; that’s never happened to me at one of the big pharmacies.
Inside, Hernando was on the phone arranging a delivery for someone who turned out not to be home.
“Does he have a porch? That’ll work,” he said to his deliveryman. “I’ll call his mother about it.” Run a business like that, your success on The Ave is likely guaranteed.
I visited Hernando while I was out asking several downtown merchants how they keep traffic, survive competition, and make money on The Ave and how they’ll keep profiting in the future.
“Don’t be afraid to bring a business down here,” Hernando said. “as long as you have a good idea that meets a real need, plus you have to really want the money and put in the 50 or 60 hours until you’re established.”
Caleb Soto didn’t know Hernando in 1987, but was following that advice when he brought his experience from New York City’s Diamond District to The Ave and opened DeSoto Jewelers -- at a time when downtowns everywhere were suffering after the flight of customers to malls.
“The New York diamond district is the Harvard of the business,” the warm, businesslike Caleb said about where he learned, trained, and worked, “I thought I would do ok.”
He designs more than 30 percent of the jewelry he sells instead of having a case full of standard wares like the chains do. He cuts diamonds and is an expert on one-of-a-kind engagement rings and vintage watches.
He said to succeed as a downtown entrepreneur, you have to “hit all the demographics.”
“Low end, high end, all of it,” he said. “Those making above $300,000 and those under $20,000 – anyone with a downtown business has to do that.”
Al’s Shoes has been on The Ave longer than Caleb and Hernando combined. Brian Lankin now owns the family business, which has been at 639 E. Landis Avenue since 1961, and said the store’s keys to flourishing then, now, and going forward are similar.
“I have way more inventory than the big box stores,” he said and smiled. “I have women’s sizes 4 to 13, men’s 5 to 19; wide, narrow; sandals and boots year-round; work shoes, special needs shoes. I have that back room and the whole second floor, too.” (I guess there won’t be upper floor housing at Al’s.)
He paused our interview to take a request on the phone for a specific shoe brand and size. “OK, I’ll call you back in a week-and-a-half, then you can come in to see what I got for you,” he said. People call like that all the time, he told me.
“There was a couple from Delaware in last week,” he recounted. “They heard my radio ads. They bought seven pairs of shoes.”
DeSoto Jewelers also serves customers who live far from the classy store at Seventh and Landis. Many are the Millennials.
“I do engagement rings for them, mostly,” he said. “They work out on the Internet what they want. Then, they come in and we work together. I do a few designs, they pick what they like, and they have a beautiful piece for a lifetime.”
A lifetime? “Well, sometimes they get divorced after five years, but that’s good for me, right?” Ring maker’s humor I presumed.
I asked Caleb how he competes with the standardized, huge-volume jewelers.
“People got tired of the monster stores,” he explained. “They don’t like to be treated as numbers. They want service like I give. Downtown businesses are coming back, no doubt.”
Al’s has an older target market, but his belief in the future is just as strong. “Business has never been better revenue-wise,” he declared.
All three businesses look forward to a future of serving Vineland’s ethnically diverse marketplace.
Hernando’s customers form a rich racial and bilingual mix and interactions there include not only friendly chatter, but also actual counseling by the staff about medical issues -- not just a customer signing a terminal or checking a box.
“It’s nothing like ‘oh, that’s Landis Avenue, I don’t want to go there,’” Hernando said. “I’m busy all the time There’s a great future here.”
Then, Hernando gave me one of his store-branded T-shirts—yellow, like I wanted.