A shot of the interior of Fox Fine Jewelry in Ventura, Calif., which opened in its new space in the spring of 2014; click through the slideshow below to see larger photos.
Ventura, Calif.--Stay liquid, don’t even bother to look if the location’s not right and understand that there’s a lot of hard work ahead of you.

These are three lessons California jeweler Debbie Fox, who owns Fox Fine Jewelry with her husband George, learned when she moved her 18-year-old jewelry business from the edge to the middle of town and, in the process, created what has been deemed one of America’s “Coolest” jewelry stores.

The showroom of the first store that the Foxes opened in 1998 had dimensions that made a New York City studio apartment seem big--it was a mere 100 square feet. It also was in a less-than-ideal spot at the end of the six-block strip of restaurants and stores that constitutes downtown Ventura. 

The Foxes eventually relocated their business to a larger, 1,100-square-foot-space at the other end of the strip, but the location still wasn’t right.

Debbie Fox said from the day they opened their store, she had always wanted to move to the center of town and, over the years, perpetually kept her eyes peeled for retail openings.

Then, in late 2008, the recession hit. Businesses began to shutter, opening up an opportunity for Fox Fine Jewelry to finally move.

For the next four years, Fox spent an average of 20 hours a week researching what properties were available, looking at them and, in a total of five separate instances, putting together deals only to watch them fall apart. 

In the end, though, all the hard work turned out to be worth it. The Foxes ended up buying a building Debbie had been eyeing as ideal for years and have found that moving to the center of town has been a huge boost for their business.

“It was a tremendous effort and took much more of my time to search than I had anticipated,” she said. “It was emotional because we wanted it so badly. We were personally invested in the move. And why wouldn’t we be? We knew that we were missing a lot of business because of our location. As it turned out, we were missing far more business than we imagined.”

A hunt, made difficult
The commercial real estate market in Ventura, a town located 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles, is tight. The best properties never go up for rent or for sale, not publicly anyway, and there’s a few major players that own all the properties. “The good ones never hit the market,” Fox said. “It’s a small town … people would just talk to their buddies,” and let them know when something became available.

Further complicating the search were the facts that real estate in Ventura is expensive and Fox was looking for something very specific: a building that was the right size in the right location that they could buy for the right price and, optimally, didn’t already have a business with a lease in it.

Fox began her hunt in 2009, using some methods that seem very old-fashioned in this age of social media and email.

She walked up and down the main street in Ventura and talked to the managers of the different businesses or found out who their landlord was and contacted them directly. She also went to the county government building and pulled the property tax records for certain buildings, a tactic she highly recommends to jewelers looking for a new space.

These records, in California at least, provided her with just the addresses of the owners--no emails or phone numbers even--but that was enough for Fox. She wrote them letters, and follow-up letters, and even went knocking on one owner’s door.

Did they think she was nuts? We’ll never know. “They never answered,” she said. “They never answered the letters and they never answered the door.”

She also contacted every single broker who worked in downtown Ventura property to see what they had available.

One of the brokers owned a building he was renting to a surf shop. He wanted to sell, and the owner of the surf shop had said he “absolutely” wanted out of the lease.

The deal made it all the way to escrow but the tenant changed his mind and, legally, had the right to stay. That’s how deal No. 1 died.  

A rude awakening, and a satisfying conclusion
Four more deals, some of which ate up months of time, would fall apart over the next several years.

After the fifth letdown, Fox said she came to a sort of sad cosmic conclusion about moving her jewelry business. “I had this moment where I was like, ‘I give up. I guess it’s not right. We’re not moving. It’s fine. We’re going to remodel.’”

It was April 2013 by this point and the cloud of the recession was beginning to lift, leading Fox to believe her window was closing on being able to find a space she wanted. She called her real estate broker and told her they’d made the decision to stay and remodel.

Her call--and perhaps the reality that after four years he wasn’t going to make any money if Fox Fine Jewelry didn’t move--spurred the broker to call the owner of a store called The Wild Planet, an interesting emporium that sold fishnet stockings, bunny costumes for Halloween and T-shirts with “alternative messages,” and ask him if he was ready to sell.

It was the space Fox had wanted all along and it turned out to be just the right time. After years of telling Fox he wasn’t budging, the owner was ready. They made him an offer, he countered with a higher offer and, after years of searching, they were in escrow on this property within a week.

Fox said what helped them tremendously in the end was having plenty of cash on hand to bring to closing, and that’s another tip she offers to jewelers looking to move--stay as liquid as possible.

“We saved and saved, keeping our money liquid. We were able to afford the building with the prime location because we had the funds and the ability to act quickly,” she said. “We had the money to pay rent on the old place and the mortgage on the new place for the year of construction.”

Fox Fine Jewelry has seen its business blossom since opening in this new, 3,200-square-foot location in the spring of 2014. Just this month, the retailer got another boost--InStore magazine named it not one of but the “Coolest Store in America” in the Big Store category, putting the California retailer on the cover of its August issue.

For Fox, the store’s success in the former Wild Planet space underscores what is a very cliché but very true adage in real estate: it’s all about location, location, location.

She advises jewelers against wasting time on a property unless the location is ideal.

“Location is key, and if the location isn’t right then you should pass on it. I spent a lot of time, money and effort chasing locations that weren’t optimum,” she says. “For some of them it would have been better to let them go at the beginning because of the location.”

Her search for a new space for her jewelry business also highlights another lesson, one that applies in matters of real estate, business and life in general.

“No matter what it is, if you really want it and it’s really hard to get, you have to work at it,” Fox said. “Maybe it doesn’t work, but you put your best effort forward.” 

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