When Rosemary Austin opened Anisoptera Mercantile in Lexington Center last October, she knew the road ahead would not be easy. Opening a cannabidiol (CBD) store, and building a business model around a product that many consumers still aren’t aware of or don’t quite understand, adds a unique dimension to the many challenges of starting a business.
But having experienced the pain relief CBD could provide firsthand after a traumatic car accident a few years ago, starting this business was a dream and a mission for Austin. So in 2021, she signed a five-year lease to open her store in Lexington Center. But last week, she announced that a combination of factors meant that her physical store would close by Oct. 31 this year. On Wednesday, she said she will likely “bump that up a little bit.” The store’s inventory reduction sale has already started, though Austin plans to continue her business online.
During her year in Lexington, “I have met a number of wonderful people, and there have been some that have been very supportive,” Austin said. But on the whole, “the year has been very frustrating for me.”
In its first months of business, Anisoptera Mercantile got off to a strong start, Austin said. In particular, she recalled that the Lexington Retailers Association’s Discovery Day (Re-Discovery Day last year) and annual Halloween event brought lots of foot traffic to the Center, helping customers discover her business.
But when the Omicron wave of the pandemic spiked in the winter, many people stopped coming to her store, Austin said. What’s more, even once that variant waned, Center Streetscape construction resumed – something Austin said she’d had no forewarning about from her broker when she signed her lease.
“I was told that there’s going to be some updates…but it’s not going to be a big deal,” she said. “It never crossed my mind that there was going to be a project to the extent that it was.”
The blazing hot summer weather likely also depressed foot traffic, she added. But customers have apologized to her for staying away all summer specifically “because it was such a mess” in the Center. Other local businesses expressed mixed reactions to the construction’s impacts during its first few weeks in the spring, as previously reported.
In the face of the dual foot traffic challenges posed by the pandemic and Center construction, some other local businesses benefited from the Town’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) grant program for small businesses. Austin said that she had not believed she was eligible for this pandemic aid because, as a new local store, she’d had strong revenue in her first month of business just before the Omicron downturn.
Pandemic and construction challenges aside, Austin acknowledged that her business faced an additional hurdle. “CBD is a new concept for people,” she said. (In addition to CBD products, she also offers some general “wellbeing” products, such as coffee, tea and chocolate.)
One factor that did not contribute to Austin’s decision to leave Lexington Center: rent. As Lexingtonians have learned that her store will soon close, Austin said that eight out of 10 people ask if she’s leaving because the rent is too high. In fact, “I did get a decent rent here” – better than what she was offered for a location she considered in Wellesley. “For me, it’s been a lack of traffic…the business just isn’t there,” she said. Other Lexington Center business owners have pointed to foot traffic and high rents alike among local challenges, as previously reported.
In fact, Austin pivoted to plan for a Lexington opening after her potential landlord in Wellesley unexpectedly raised the rent on her. Austin, who lives in Milton, considered a few different factors in choosing Lexington. Demographically, she was looking for a 45-75 age range for her product. She also liked Lexington’s diversity and liberal politics, and thought the store location was beautiful.
In practice, about 50% of Austin’s current business comes from beyond Lexington, with customers patronizing the store from Cambridge, Arlington and Burlington. Generally, many of her customers are seniors seeking pain relief, she added. A little over a week ago, Austin even shared an informational presentation about the benefits of CBD with seniors at the Community Center, and received so many questions that she stayed late to answer them.
Austin has sought out other community partnerships in the Town Center’s business community; she’s been able to collaborate with nearby businesses including Center Goods, Btone Fitness and Il Casale. But she wishes there were more organized collaborations among Lexington businesses, and more events to bring foot traffic to the Center. In her view, the Retailers Association and Town Economic Development Office might be able to do more on those fronts.
Eric Michelson is president of the Lexington Retailers Association, while his brother Jerry chairs the Town’s Center Committee. Austin expressed appreciation to the Michelson brothers for welcoming her when she arrived. Still, “I never had a ribbon cutting ceremony when I came in. I haven’t seen [the] Retailers Association in my shop,” she said.
“The Retailers Association supports Lexington businesses through our events, which are designed to increase foot traffic, or to create a venue for businesses to highlight themselves,” Michelson wrote in an email to LexObserver. He highlighted Discovery Day, the Halloween walk and an annual holiday shopping night as major events organized by the Retailers Association.
Austin suggested that in the future, perhaps the Town could hold a “Discount Day” or comparable initiative that gets retailers “to act as a group” without requiring the same heavy organizational lift as Discovery Day.
If Austin were staying in Lexington another year, she said she would take on such an initiative – but in her first year operating a small business, “there wasn’t time for that.”
The Economic Development Office is currently working to organize additional downtown events. At a Select Board meeting earlier this month, Economic Development Director Sandhya Iyer presented tentative ideas for a series of six events over the next few months, ranging from a “Sip and Shop Night” to a “Fall Movie Series.” The Select Board approved allocating $150,000 in ARPA funding to the Economic Development Office for a special events series earlier this year.
During the summer, Iyer said the Office had heard that a lack of foot traffic related to Center Streetscape Construction had hit many businesses especially hard, and she hopes holding additional events this fall will support all downtown businesses.
“Covid has been tough on so many businesses and the business models that rely on foot traffic,” she wrote in an email. “We do hear a lot of businesses still struggling and worried about the winter months.”
Michelson added that “I feel really bad that [Anisoptera Mercantile was] not able to meet their business goals with their space in the Center,” and singled out the construction and pandemic for creating a “challenging environment.”
While it’s too soon for Austin to know exactly what she’ll do with her business moving forward, eventually, “I most likely will open up something in a different location,” she said.
But for now, even this week, Austin was assisting customers learning about CBD for the first time, such as a senior who walked into the store seeking relief for excruciating foot pain.
“I’ve met some really nice people, both who work for the Town and the Retailers Association and…customers,” Austin said. “But this was not at all what I thought my experience would be like here.”