Chapel Street evolves
Rendezvous and Sassy stores to close
NEW HAVEN — Jay Y. Lee spent a recent weekday cleaning up his shop on Chapel Street, gazing at narrow aisles and shelves that nearly reach the ceiling inside the store.
The tidying up at his store, Sassy Beauty Supply, on 800 Chapel St., was preparation for a big sale — his last, as Lee prepared to sell off the remainder of his merchandise.
After 20 years of doing business in New Haven, Lee is closing Sassy for good.
The decision was influenced by his neighbor, Lee said. Next door, Rendezvous owner Chang H. Kim said he’s closing his shop this month after 21 years.
Both storefronts had similar “Going Out of Business” signs plastered on their window fronts. They were marketing an everything-must-go bonanza.
Kim said his business was closing after his lease expired and renewal was not an option. His shops specialize in urban clothing. The closure of his Chapel Street store will result in four employees losing jobs.
Lee’s decision was triggered by Kim’s choice to shut down. Yet, Lee said he had been contemplating closing his store for some time. He said he doesn’t have any plans to reopen anywhere else.
“I’ve been losing money for the last 12 months,” Lee said. “A lot of it is because Dollar Tree and Family Dollar being here. They didn’t eat all my business away, but they ate away at the profit margin where I needed to survive.”
Lee’s shop specialized in what the industry refers to as ethnic haircare. His products included wigs, hair extension and hair care products.
The closing of the two stores is emblematic of a looming change coming to lower Chapel Street. It’s what city Economic Development Administrator Matthew Nemerson said is the, “evolution” of the block.
“People don’t always like change,” Nemerson said. “Those blocks will look more like the rest of Chapel Street.”
The city was aware that both Rendezvous and Sassy’s were planning to close, Nemerson said. Last year, another similar business on the street, Sports-Park, closed. Foot Locker, a retail brand with a location on Chapel Street, is essentially operating on a month-to-month basis, Nemerson said.
Such changes, however, are more reflective of a national trend for downtowns rather than a New Haven shift, Nemerson said.
“We need to start changing the role Chapel Street plays in downtown,” Nemerson said.
More dramatic, sweeping changes revising this strip are still about five years away, though. Nemerson said incoming housing developments will bring 400 to 500 market-rate housing units on Olive Street. The eventual development of the former New Haven Coliseum site will also bring new clientele to shops along Chapel Street.
This will mean adding a restaurant or perhaps shops similar to the vintage shop English Building Market on Chapel Street, which recently expanded. He said stores such as CVS pharmacy, which has a location downtown, are “mini department stores,” because they provide numerous products in one place.
Nemerson pointed out that it’s great the city can have a place for an “$8 ice cream cone,” but it’s important to have a variety of other options for residents and visitors. That’s where stores such as Dollar Tree come in, providing low-cost products.
The large companies are also an advantage because they can scope out potential locations and determine their viability with additional resources, including looking at purchasing patterns and demographics before choosing a site.
“These huge, national or international chains have the ability to lower prices, buy things from suppliers and have big logistical centers and it’s very, very hard to compete,” Nemerson said.
Lee said these stores, the mini-department style stores Nemerson referenced, also can “deprive people of the extra income they have … their disposable income is reduced, therefore they have less money to spend.”
Consumer changes in New Haven
While there may be less money in the pockets, there seems to be fewer pockets themselves.
Before it closed in 2002, the Chapel Square Mall provided several downtown shopping options for thousands of visitors and nearby workers. Nemerson said the mall had 60-odd shops and catered to downtown employees working at banks, utility companies and accounting firms.
“I think they were catering to a clientel of office workers and women who work downtown, and so there was just a very strong presence,” Nemerson said.
United Illuminating’s consolidation in Orange, downsizing of telecommunication companies and shrinking banks meant fewer people were working — and spending — in downtown New Haven, Nemerson said. The “traditional office worker,” presence has simply changed, Nemerson said.
“We’re becoming much more of an entertainment and restaurant focused downtown as shopping has moved to the suburbs and shoppers have moved to the suburbs,” Nemerson said.
Again, Nemerson said this is similar to a nationwide trend. What is unique in New Haven is Yale University Properties and their support of “high-end retail along Chapel Street,” Nemerson said. Working with the city and merchants, Yale properties wants to create retail atmospheres like those in Princeton or Harvard Square, Nemerson said.
“We become the benefactors of that,” Nemerson said. “People forget how lucky we are that Yale is operating in a very different kind of atmosphere in terms of Broadway and Chapel Street.”
Possible replacements for the Rendezvous and Sassy sites could include another large-scale urban retailer, Nemerson said, or perhaps a large restaurant.
He also suggested a smaller-scale Best Buy, or perhaps an “Amazon store,” since he said he believes the internet giant may be interested in a retail presence.
What about a comedy club? That’s another suggestion Nemerson said could fit on the street. There used to be a jazz club on that block, too; why not bring that back?
“I think we have to look at Orange Street as sort of leading the way and lower Chapel Street will follow,” Nemerson said, pointing out how Orange Street was once a virtually retail-only area.
Neither Orange Street nor Chapel Street seem like a viable option for Kim. At least, that’s not really where he’s looking.
Kim said he plans on reopening the shop somewhere in the city, with the Dixwell neighborhood a possibility for relocation. The Kim family also owns businesses in Hartford, New Britain and Waterbury, Kim said.
Kim opened a second Rendezvous location on Grand Avenue about six months ago, he said. That location is not affected.
Both shops are selling off merchandise at discounted prices. Rendezvous’ last day will be Nov. 30, Kim said, while Lee said Sassy Beauty Supply will close on Nov. 17.
Jay Y. Lee inside his store, Sassy Beauty Supply, on Wednesday in New Haven. Lee said competition from larger retail stores have cut into his profit.
Rendezvous and Sassy Beauty Supply in New Haven on Wednesday. Both stores are shutting down this month.