The signs on the sides of the buildings call them discount malls or swap meets, but in neighborhoods across the Las Vegas Valley old supermarkets, idle home improvement stores and former big-box retail outlets are small-business incubators.
Generally defined as indoor swap meets, the eclectic collections of shops under one roof tend to offer discounted clothing, shoes, electronics, furniture and other wares to shoppers.
They also offer a way for newcomers — often recent immigrants — to get a foothold in the business world.
Gillian Naylor, department chairwoman and associate professor of marketing and international business at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said swap meets in the Southwest tend to cater heavily to immigrants from Mexico.
“A lot of them are long-term and my guess is that they’re providing low-cost products and, given the number of people who go on a regular basis, there could be a social link as well,” she said. “Things may be conducted in Spanish so it’s a comfortable environment full of trust and familiarity. They’re meeting and interacting with others from their home culture.”
SOME WEEKS SEE LITTLE BUSINESS
At Plaza del Sol, 1310 E. Lake Mead Blvd. in North Las Vegas, Maria Mendoza said a much-needed push from her husband drove her to open Maria’s Fashion.
“After my mother passed away, my husband wanted me to be occupied,” she said. “I was injured at my previous job, so I couldn’t work anymore, and I’ve loved clothes since I was little.”
Mendoza said she tried other swap meets across Las Vegas for three years and eight months ago settled at Plaza del Sol, where Wednesdays through Fridays are her busiest days and some weeks go by with little to no business.
“It can be complicated because I didn’t know how to tell people the prices and let them know they can try things on,” she said. “But my English has gotten a little better.”
Mendoza called owning a business an uplifting experience.
“It feels great because I don’t have to depend on anybody else,” she said. “I just continue to ask God to send me clients.”
If business doesn’t get better, Mendoza said she’ll have to consider other options.
“I’d like to stay here, but if sales don’t go up, I’ll have to move or go out of business,” she said. “I haven’t thought about where I’ll go.”
Like most swap meet entrepreneurs, Mendoza has little interest in making the leap to a single-business storefront.
Naylor said retailers who want to go mainstream are unlikely to establish their business in that environment.
“Testing a retail concept there would be tough, given those who go to swap meets as most customers who shop there don’t shop outside of their areas or neighborhoods,” she said. “The more affluent you are, the greater distance you’ll go to shop.”
VARIETY TO ELIMINATE COMPETITION
Responsibility for the building typically falls on the shoulders of the manager of the indoor swap meet.
Plaza del Sol Manager Gerardo Madrid has overseen the former furniture store-turned-indoor swap meet for the past 16 years.
He handles upkeep, pays the bills and collects rent from nine tenants. He owns two of the 11 businesses under his roof.
“It’s been good, but having so much responsibility has caused my hair to fall out,” he said with a laugh.
Rent is established by square footage, which is at the discretion of the building manager, and tenants must sign a six-month lease before they’re allowed to pay month to month. None of the small-business owners or landlords interviewed for this article were willing to discuss finances in specific terms.
“I adjust it to how businesses are doing; if one is struggling, I’ll charge them a cheaper rent,” Madrid said. “I’m more interested in filling this place rather than charging high rent and having it sit empty.”
Variety is also something landlords strive for in an effort to eliminate competition and tenant disputes.
“I don’t want two of the same business so there’s no competition,” he said. “I treat them like family so there are no disputes. If disputes happen, I try to be the mediator and stay neutral, but they don’t happen often.”
When tenants are given their space, they must keep it clean and build it out to fit the needs of their business.
At Bonanza Indoor Swap Meet, at 1720 E. Charleston Blvd., seamstress Georgina Casanova has operated a tailor shop for nearly three years.
When Casanova first opened her business, the walls were already built; however, she chose to add an extended fence for extra privacy at her own expense. She also had to obtain a business license, which she has renewed every year by a notary.
“I’m comfortable here,” she said. “It’s also flexible so I can bring my kids here and I can close if something comes up.”
Casanova, who has been sewing for 20 years, said her decision to open a business at a swap meet stems from convenience as well as the clientele.
“Mostly Hispanic people shop here, and it’s easier and cheaper to have my business here,” she said. “Plus, it’s more relaxing here as opposed to working for a big company where I would probably be struggling to get hours.”
SEEKING A SECOND LOCATION
At Bonanza Indoor Swap Meet, Donald Perez, who moved from Long Island, N.Y., three months ago, oversees his mother’s cellphone and shoe stores with help from his younger brother and girlfriend.
Perez said his mother’s decision to open two businesses at Bonanza was mostly because of the language barrier.
“My mom doesn’t speak English well, and mostly Spanish people shop here,” he said. “They’ve been doing well, but business slows down when summer hits.”
Perez said his mother has owned the phone store for eight years. The shoe store is a month old.
“My aunt originally had the cellphone store, and we’ve kept it going,” he said, adding that a move from a booth to a full storefront “would depend.”
“I know that she wants to, but she’s not 100 percent,” he said. “The money flow would have to be good.”
Business is going well for Jose Ramirez, who opened his clothing and shoe store eight years ago inside Bonanza to reach Hispanic clientele.
He’s taking steps to open a second location.
“I’m hoping to open at Boulevard Mall,” he said. “I don’t know when that will be but hopefully soon.”
Unlike Ramirez, Esther Carreon isn’t going anywhere as she’s owned Gabby’s Fashion at Rancho Discount Mall, 2901 W. Washington Ave., since the mall opened in 1997.
“My lease is month to month and it’s easier to have my business here instead of paying bills in my own storefront,” she said. “I would love to have my own storefront, but I don’t think my business is fit for that.”
Carreon says she’s making it but certainly hopes that business picks up soon.
“Business is so-so; it could be better,” she said. “I hope that the economy gets better and that there are better times to come.”
Billy Kim, co-owner and manager of Bonanza, which used to be Homebase, a home improvement store, also hopes business picks up. Although 65 businesses occupy Bonanza, a portion in the rear sits empty.
“It’s not only me that’s hurting, but all of Vegas,” Kim said. “My hope is that these people make money.”
Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Andrea Corral contributed to this report. Contact reporter Ann Friedman at 702-380-4588 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @AnnFriedmanRJ on Twitter.