After nearly two years, vendors and customers filled the colorful streets of Fourth Avenue for the Winter Street Fair in December 2021. After that successful winter fair, the larger Spring Street Fair returned last month with even bigger attendance. The events, which draw hundreds of thousands of attendees each year, have been repeatedly delayed due to the pandemic, drawing fewer customers to already-affected local businesses that line Fourth Avenue. With the return of these big events, as well as an increase in daily traffic, the avenue looks bright – although there are still some bumps and potholes.
Fourth Avenue might have the highest personality-to-square-footage ratio in all of Tucson. North of the Fourth Avenue underpass, the corridor contains several coffeeshops, record stores, boutiques, art stores, and bars. Geographically and culturally, it is the intersection of the university district and the city center. However, this culture has suffered multiple losses in recent years, including the closure of the Flycatcher bar to be replaced by an apartment building. The pandemic certainly didn’t help, with several small businesses closing. But for some, including eclectic art store Pop Cycle, things are on the right track.
“This past year has been our best year ever. It’s been a little crazy, and we’re blown away by how lucky we’ve been. There’s been so much support, not only from the Tucson community, but also from visitors to out of town,” said Shannon Riggs, co-owner of Pop Cycle and chair of the Historic Fourth Avenue Coalition. “The avenue is busy. I know the retail business is doing well, and of course the bars and the restaurants suffered a lot more, but when I look around the avenue, it still looks pretty busy these days.
Pop Cycle, which sells a variety of recycled and local art, closed for six months in 2020. This not only impacted the staff, but also the local artists whose work is sold in the store. Although Riggs admits the pandemic has been very difficult for the Avenue, she says it could have been worse.
“We’re super lucky that we haven’t lost a lot of business,” Riggs said. “We lost a few, but everyone I know who ran these businesses has bounced back and is doing something else. It’s really awesome.
But now, with restrictions lifted and business resuming, there was also an opportunity to bring back the Made In Tucson market in addition to the street fair. On a smaller scale, the Made In Tucson market is exclusively for area vendors. With 165 vendors and thousands of attendees, this month of April saw the largest market ever in Tucson.
“Something we hear from people is that the Street Fair should have more local vendors. Of course there are local artists doing Street Fair, but we wanted to do an exclusively local event,” said Riggs. “And I think it just has a more funky, popular vibe. All the signs were hand painted, and I feel like it matches the funky Fourth Ave vibe that’s important.”
While many stores are doing better, that doesn’t mean others haven’t been forever changed by the pandemic. Just down the avenue, Antigone Books is another beloved shop that has survived. However, co-owner Kate Stern says it is a smaller operation and the pre-pandemic period was almost like running a different business.
“I wouldn’t say we’re back to where we were, even without inflation. It’s hard to assess,” Stern said. “It was actually a bit slow here for the street fair. Traditionally there are always a lot of people browsing, and not everyone is buying. But overall it’s good for us. Our sales aren’t amazing. Usually the winter fair is bigger for us. We haven’t noticed a huge increase in sales, but it’s still good for the avenue as a whole. The Fourth Avenue Merchants Association depends on that revenue, and we rely on it, so it’s systemic that way.
Stern says there are a number of difficulties in the world we currently find ourselves in. Beyond record inflation, there are also ongoing staffing issues and pervasive supply chain issues. As a result, Antigone was forced to raise prices for its gift items like calendars, while list prices for books also increased.
Due to supply chain safeguards, some of the bookstore orders either did not show up or appeared months later. Stern says it’s been difficult to keep their displays stocked, and people have even asked if they’re closing because their shelves might be empty, even though an order had been placed months before. This has also impacted special book orders, as it is difficult to give customers an estimated time of arrival.
“People have been quite upset at times, not understanding that we have no control over it,” Stern said. “People have learned to be more flexible over the past year, but not everyone is used to it.”
During the pandemic, the rate of shipping a 40ft container across the Pacific jumped more than 500%, topping $20,000, a record price. This type of increase has even affected stores like Pop Cycle, which use a lot of recycled materials for their products.
“Almost in every area our artists have had to raise their prices,” Riggs said. “Even though it’s recycled and handmade, there’s always something to buy. And we make a lot of stuff ourselves in our back studio, and the magnets we use, the price, and the shipping have doubled. So we had to raise the prices of things that we had never raised the prices for.
Riggs says she doesn’t know of people who can’t get what they need, it’s just that there are delays and price increases on everything, and it can be tough on artists’ deadlines. .
Despite all that, marketers like Riggs and Stern say they think Fourth Avenue business owners are hopeful. Antigone plans to bring back its own community events later this year.
“It’s been a very tough year for everyone, and it’s definitely better now. But we are all still faced with the
repercussions of the pandemic,” Stern said. “Even though a lot of people around the world have moved on and are ready to get it over with, I think there are longer term effects. But we’re all in this together and it’s refreshing to see that other businesses are in the same place as us.And I think the general attitude of merchants is favorable.It has made people closer,more understanding and closer.
The pandemic hasn’t even stopped some Fourth Avenue stores from expanding. On Thursday, May 5, the Food Conspiracy Co-op opened an additional entrance at the back of its store. The completed expansion will add an entrance to the east side of their store, 2,000 square feet of retail space, 33 parking spaces and solar panels. Andrea Buttrick, communications coordinator for Food Conspiracy Co-op, says the expansion has been planned since before the pandemic.
“Our sales are now growing exponentially and buyers are coming back,” Buttrick said. “There is a sense of excitement and interest in coming back. Of course, there are still hesitations, but people are excited.
Buttrick says the Food Conspiracy Co-op was in a unique position to deal with the pandemic compared to other grocery stores because they source much of their produce from local farmers. As a result, they were able to stay open during the pandemic. However, she confirms that they suffer from inflation like everyone else.
“It really shows the caliber of our staff who showed up and kept working,” Buttrick said.
In total, the Winter Street Fair attracted approximately 300,000 attendees. The Fourth Avenue Merchants Association says it made little revenue on the first return because the event was primarily “to offset any cancellations due to COVID.” However, the following Spring Street Fair saw around 600,000 attendees, and vendors said it was one of the best ever. Since the fair has been closed three times, the Fourth Avenue Merchants Association believes it will take one more fair to “get back on its feet.”
“We just want to remind people that Fourth Ave. has been this hub of localism and community fun for all these years, and we’d love to do more cool stuff,” Riggs said. “With the money we make from events, I think it helps us a lot to organize more of them. We just want people to take to the avenue and remember what they love about it.