Business / Economy

Women entrepreneurs take charge in San Juan Bautista

The majority of downtown area businesses are owned by women.

When San Juan Bautista was a wild west town 150 years ago, men owned almost all the businesses, held all the government jobs, and were the only ones who could vote. Today, the City of History is driven by women who own or co-own the vast majority of businesses—85%—in the four-block downtown area on Third Street, from Franklin to Muckelemi streets. Within or near those blocks, there are over 30 shops, restaurants and services owned or co-owned by women.

Patricia Bains, owner of Mrs. B's Z-Place. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Patricia Bains, owner of Mrs. B’s Z-Place. Photo by Robert Eliason.

For Patricia Bains, who has operated Mrs. B’s Z-Place for 22 years, opening a business is a chance for women to show there is no limitation to what they can do.

“I think women have a vision of creativity and entrepreneurship that goes beyond men’s vision of it,” she said. “Having a business is a way of expressing our ideas, our worth, and the beauty that we see around us. It gives us an opportunity for people to see how we can stretch out our dreams. And it creates a community that is unique with its own special ambiance.”

Halina Kleinsmith started Fool’s Gold Antiques and has been in the same location for 25 years.

“San Juan is one of those cities that calls people to her,” she said. “It is an area with a small enough number of business sites that are in turn small enough to manage and take care of as a sole proprietor. Many women in the creative arts and the antiques industry have found this to be a perfect mix with an antique storefront to operate out of, in a town that has terrific visitorship because of the town’s unique history.”

Ramona Ilene Hill, owner of Crēdo Studios. Photo courtesy of Ramona Hill.
Ramona Ilene Hill, owner of Crēdo Studio. Photo courtesy of Ramona Hill.

Ramona Ilene Hill, who opened Crēdo Studio four years ago, agrees.

“With a lot of the women here who I have spoken to, their business is not the breadwinner business,” Hill said. “So many of the owners here are women who have the freedom to pursue a dream type of business. And these smaller places and the tourist nature of the town are perfect for that. In this area, you get used to going to other places because what you need is not available locally. With me, my dream is to draw together the artistic community that already exists here and give it a place to be experienced.”

Being a small town with seasonal tourist traffic presents some problems that larger towns don’t have. Business owners created the San Juan Bautista Community Business Association to stage events and publicize the town, but the women work to help each other survive.

“I have two women in town who have been my business mentors,” Hill said. “I would suggest someone wanting to start a business should meet the other business owners. They are all very friendly and approachable, and many of them are super well-established. They are willing to share what they know about being successful in this town.”

Lori Wilson, who opened Bear’s Hideaway 11 years ago, said one of the great things about San Juan Bautista is how the women support each other.

“We have created a tight-knit bond between us in this beautiful place,” she said. “And not just the business owners, the residents are also very supportive of our small shops. The residents are loyal to us and during the slow times it helps keep us open.”

Lori Wilson of Bear's Hideaway. Photo courtesy of Lori Wilson.
Lori Wilson of Bear’s Hideaway. Photo courtesy of Lori Wilson.

Barbara Gonzales grew up in San Juan Bautista. Her shop, Visions, is one of the oldest continuous businesses in town, opening 34 years ago. She’s seen generations of visitors come and go.

“There is a wide variety of people who come to tourist towns and everyone walking through the door is different,” Gonzales said. “You really have to be a people person to have a business like this. And during a difficult time like this pandemic, the love of the business and your relationship with the customers is what pulls you through. You might not make a lot of money, but don’t look to get rich. Look to get enriched.”

The loss of tourist traffic during the pandemic was a major blow to all of the stores in San Juan Bautista, but few women-owned businesses were forced to close. Those that did stay open were able to do so only because of available grants, which they still are relying on.

“It’s been quite a learning experience,” Kleinsmith said. “It was scary at the beginning, shuttering your business and not knowing for how long. I was closed for three and a half months. I was lucky in getting the San Benito grant that was available, which brought me back to ground zero. I had used all of my savings to keep the business going, paying all my bills and shouldering the whole thing.”

Hill has been unable to open Crēdo Studio since the start of the pandemic, and is now looking for ways to regroup and diversify to survive.

“Everything I have is services or gatherings that can’t be offered right now,” she said. “I realized I needed to be selling so in a case like this I would be able to generate money. And I also realized that a lot of artists have not been able to sell anything—it is not part of their personality to market themselves or they might not have had the opportunity. Previously, I had been asking artists to teach and now I am going to be offering them a chance to sell in my space.”

But with the San Juan Bautista State Historic Park reopening and tourists returning to town, the women business owners are ready for the day-to-day routine to begin again.

“Once you have tethered yourself to a business, you are it, night and day,” Kleinsmith said. “You better love what you are doing because it becomes your life. But it is really doable if you have saved some money and you have a goal and a dream. As long as you offer goods that are unique, your love of what you are doing will draw people back.”

Below is a list of women-owned businesses in San Juan Bautista:

 

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Robert Eliason

I’ve been a freelance photographer since my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. My dad taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.   I have had gallery showings and done commercial work but photojournalism is a wonderful challenge in storytelling.   The editors at BenitoLink have encouraged me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  It is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community.