WILSHIRE BLVD — After 25 years of business in Santa Monica, the Hallmark Gold Crown store here has announced it will close April 30, leaving a swath of grieving customers in its wake.
The decision to close came after a year of reflection, based on the flagging economy and fierce competition from free or cheap electronic cards favored by young people.
“The older generation still wants to receive and hold cards,” owner Ranjoo Patel said of the electronic cards. “We found it had a greater impact amongst younger people.”
Husband and wife team Ron and Ranjoo Patel have owned and operated the shop, called And the Three Bears, since Feb. 21, 1986.
Twenty-five years ago, the couple traveled from their home in Utah to visit Santa Monica with friends.
They were looking for an new, more social environment to raise their children, Ranjoo said.
While walking, they happened upon the shop, which was decorated just as it is today with bunnies and shamrocks pressed to the inner window proclaiming the spring season.
There was also a “for sale” sign.
“Ron said, ‘This is it. We start here,’” Ranjoo recalled.
He went to sit on the beach, watching the ocean waves for about an hour before he returned to his friends and proclaimed his intention to enter the card business.
Neither Patel had owned a business quite like this one before, but they worked with the previous owner of And the Three Bears to get a handle on the shift of the seasons, the must-have merchandise and unique cards not available at the average drug store.
Their efforts struck gold with customers in Santa Monica.
“They have real unusual, special things,” said longtime customer Kae Kleinman. “I don’t think there’s another store like it.”
Kleinman has been a customer of And the Three Bears since it opened. She is a self-proclaimed card addict, who is “horrified of e-vites” and holds to the Victorian fashion of packaging multiple cards together with ribbon.
“I like to have that beautiful, special piece of paper that you can keep,” she said. “That’s the beginning of the party, the beginning of the feeling that you’re trying to evoke.”
And much like the cards they sell, the Patels put a special touch on their store, she said.
“Visualize this: One of them would help me to the car with bags!” Kleinman said.
Over the years, And the Three Bears has ridden the roller coaster of the American economy through its highs and lows.
The shop almost closed in 1999, Ron said, but was saved by one key sale.
“Beanie Babies,” he said. “Without them, we would have gone out of business a long time ago.”
Problems began to add up. Pressure built on the shop in the form of a stressful commute, increased rent and fewer customers.
When their three children grew, the Patels decided to leave their Santa Monica rental and look elsewhere for a place to become homeowners.
They settled in the San Fernando Valley, then a 25 minute commute to work.
That didn’t last. Today, the Patels spend two hours together in their car every day in order to open the store by 9:30 a.m.
Sales dwindled as customer traffic dropped by as much as 30 percent, Ron estimated.
The Patels blame, in part, the incursion of e-cards and the failing economy.
Much of their business comes from spur of the moment counter purchases, when customers are attracted to the knickknacks and figurines they encounter after they’ve selected the card they intended to purchase.
“Now, they buy the card and they’re out with it,” Ron said. “If they don’t have it, they don’t want to spend it, and if they have it, they don’t want to spend it.”
While Hallmark corporate acknowledges the difficulty for its franchisees, its representative expressed great optimism for the business as a whole.
“As it has for most American businesses, the tough economy and the high unemployment numbers have created challenges for Hallmark and for the network of specialty stores that represent the Hallmark brand. That said, many Hallmark Gold Crown stores are doing well,” wrote Toni Ferro, a strategic communications consultant, in an e-mail.
For the past four or five years, it has been difficult to make ends meet, the Patels said.
Add to that the commute, the poor health of Ron’s father in India and the recent birth of their first granddaughter, and they felt that it was time to go.
“We love it here, and we have friends here, but it’s time to move on,” Ranjoo said.
The couple plans to move to Houston, Texas to be with their new grandchild. Ron will also travel to the Gujarat state of India for nine months to spend time with his 88-year-old father.
Although they have no plans to open a card shop in Houston, the couple looks back on their work in Santa Monica with great pride.
“Cards say it all,” Ranjoo said. “They make you feel so special.”