After finding the ShareWorld sign just behind Paul and Eddie’s, travel through the building’s side and then turn right to a hallway that seems more like someone’s garage rather than an actual comic store, with boxes of cheap comic books and posters out for the taking. But the twists and turns are worth it: Wow Cool’s physical store may be small and look more like a closet than a store, but it is packed roof to floor with comics, illustrations and some of Cupertino’s dearest memories.
Its owner, Marc Arsenault, carries a casual air about him. He hadn’t even waited for the recording to start before starting to ramble about his past: his upbringing in a family of technology and entertainment, his growing interest in comics as an alternate form of art, his subsequent burnout in it and, eventually, his return to comics. It’s not hard to see why he has a small but dedicated group of repeat customers, often coming from surrounding schools like Kennedy Middle School (KMS) and MVHS. On top of that, people go to him not only for his comics, but also for his restaurant recommendations; Arsenault is well-versed in Cupertino’s culture and what has become of it in the past few decades.
On a top shelf near the ceiling is a small box with just a small shard of Cupertino’s history in it. Inside the box is a sort of guest book full of stamps that various visitors have left over the years, each telling a different story. To Arsenault, it’s representative of Cupertino’s diversity and WowCool’s unique niche within its community.
“If you're someone who runs a bookstore, you've pretty much got your heart on your sleeve; it's like, I'm open to free discourse and I've got an open mind,” Arsenault said. “All cultures, backgrounds [and] orientations are welcome here. You're going to find something you can identify with in the store, we've got more black books than you can find in any other places in Silicon Valley.”
While Arsenault tries to maintain his part of Cupertino culture, he feels as if it’s slipping away, with local restaurants he used to frequent and other local stores being replaced by corporate buildings or left as empty lots, like Vallco mall. Despite living in what is considered one of the most expensive places to live in the country, Arsenault feels that the actual quality of life here is diminishing.
Arsenault credits this loss of local shops and constant shift of businesses to land value and rent. The rent per plot of land varies depending on square footage, but primarily lands within three to four dollars, although some plots ask for five to six dollars per square foot. As a result, he says, the businesses that give Cupertino culture are moving out.
But it’s not limited to small businesses — even major franchises like Starbucks and Vitamin Shoppe have moved out, unable to bear the high cost of rent.
“I was shocked to see the new Starbucks on De Anza [Blvd.] and [Hwy] 85 that just suddenly closed with no warning,” Arsenault said. “I was like, ‘How is this possible? More people keep moving here. What’s going on?’”
According to land development company KT Urban’s principal Mark Tersini, a major reason why rent costs have skyrocketed over the last few years is the fact that there is simply too much property to develop and not enough land to develop it on, at least compared to other regions of the country. As a result, land owners who want to sell their land usually look to achieve the highest land value that has been paid to date. Additionally, San Jose has established an urban growth line and growth boundaries that force land prices in the area to maintain its valuation, making lowering rent impossible and setting a standard for the area surrounding — including Cupertino.
“We see these beautiful hills that we have around us, but we have growth controls that don’t allow building above the 30% slope line of the hills,” Tersini said. “Here, we all get the pleasure of looking at the hills, but not much of the way it goes on from a development standpoint. I identify [growth boundaries] because it puts pressure on the land value that you do have to build to maintain its valuation.”
In addition to having less land to develop, there is also the issue with getting land developments passed, Vallco mall being a recent incident that depicts this problem. One of the plans established for revitalizing Vallco was to make a portion of it affordable housing, with the remainder of the land being used for retail. However, after being put to a vote this plan was rejected, and Vallco is instead being demoted negating any of the possible retail benefits.
“They're not allowing what is necessary,” Tersini said. “Which is additional office development and additional residential development to really create the vibrancy that that one needs to maintain the retail. That's why you see retail shops in say Valley Fair or Westfield mall doing well. Santana Row does its certain amount of business, [as does] Stanford shopping mall, because it's in close proximity to a lot of buyers – people with discretionary income that can go ahead and afford those pay for the retail and for the retailers to survive.”
With less retailers and development in Cupertino, residents frequently visit malls or other shopping districts in neighboring cities. In Sunnyvale, a city only 3.8 miles outside of Cupertino, one successful retailer, Leigh Odum, has been running a small bookstore called Leigh’s Favorite Books for over 15 years. Odum’s store is located in Murphy Avenue, a busy street filled with small restaurants and has a weekly farmers market with lots of traction during the day.
For Odum, the city of Sunnyvale has been supportive of local small businesses, with the biggest issue being the avenue’s pipe system undergoing renovations. While this construction caused issues in terms of traction and lasted for approximately nine months, the business pulled through.
“When we first opened, we opened mostly selling used books,” Odum said. “But I felt like even though we had all that stock, our business would be better to transition from running a used bookstore to new bookstores and not require capital and just changing our business a little bit.”
While Cupertino places some restrictions on development or revitalization of land, there are small shopping centers scattered around the city, each containing a handful of successful small businesses. On De Anza Boulevard, Scott Kolodzieski owns Cupertino Music, a rental music store that also offers lessons.
Kolodzieski has been in the music business for over 35 years. Starting in his sophomore year of high school at a shop called Tony’s Music, Kolodzieski worked there for seven years before it closed. Afterwards, Kolodzieski worked at another music store in Cupertino before buying his own store.
One of the biggest problems facing Kolodzieski is the rising popularity of shopping sites like Amazon. That, coupled with the high rent in Cupertino, have been the primary source of his economic problems.
“I mean, quite honestly, that's that's the hardest thing – it's just incredibly expensive to rent even a small 1200 square foot little unit we have here, which is nice area, but it's really expensive,” Kolodzieski said. “And couple that with your utilities and all the different things you have to pay for just to be open.”
Kolodzieski also has to be wary of both competition in regards to online shopping as well as the risk of placing too many discounts. On this tightrope of lowering the price to beat competition yet remain in business and pay the bills, Kolodzieski has opted to put in add-ons to the store.
“You have to kind of find other ways to create income, we did lessons, we did other things like that, so there's ways to do it as far as dealing with like the city and so on,” Kolodzieski said. “Now, it's quite been quite good. We just went through this transformation back in September, where I was a lot more involved in that now. And I've had to deal with the city and getting permits and licenses.”
While rent in Cupertino still remains high and development is slow, Cupertino has been taking actions to amend that. In order to support local small businesses, Cupertino has the Chamber of Commerce, GreenBiz Cupertino, and a yearly Small Business Saturday that happens every November.
Small Business Saturday serves as a way to publicize and promote small local businesses. The city hosts them in Main Street Cupertino’s Town Square and invites residents to come and enjoy various activities. Additionally, GreenBiz Cupertino, is a program meant to provides support and help foster local businesses while conserving the environment. It allows businesses to enter into a network that provides them with tips and information on how to get certified.
Other sources for help with small businesses can be found online, like SBDCs (small business development centers), small business associations or with consultation groups like Sterling Rose Consulting corp, of which Jennifer Rusz is the CEO. As a consultant, Rusz helps businesses with their financial or managerial problems. One of the most common issues Rusz runs into is expansion or insufficient funds.
“[Small businesses] provide an economic [boost] to the United States, to local communities,” Rusz said. “Having small businesses and starting businesses brings a lot of work for a lot of different construction workers being an entrepreneur is when you start a business.”
Small businesses, despite not being featured as much as large corporations, make up a big percentage of the businesses in the United States, according to De Anza Business professor Byron Lilly. Lilly explained in a study approximately six to seven years ago, there were about 18 million registered businesses in the United States. 80% of them were sole proprietorships, with the remainder 20% being corporations.
“So there are lots and lots of small businesses, and depending how you define a small business they can be up to 50% of our gross domestic product,” Lilly said. “And about half of that is made by small businesses, which means about half a little less than half of, of all persons are employed by small businesses, which is nice when businesses provide jobs for others in our community and society.”
Currently small businesses like Wow Cool and Cupertino Music are using social media like Facebook to get word of them out. As well as having online stores coupled with their physical stores.
Wow Cool, having closed at the end of April this year, hopes to re-open in August. Arsenault took a long glance around the room, his fingers brushed against the books sitting on the shelves as he pulled out some of the more noteworthy books in his shop. Afterwards, he pointed towards all the knicknacks he’d gathered over the years, some being gifts from local comic artists and an assortment of posters. At the end of the interview, he sat down, slightly tipped his hat and turned to look at the entrance.
“Thank you, Cupertino, for five years of mostly support,” Arsenault said. “See you wherever we land next.”
Photos by Sarah Young