Zahir “Rani” Merali looks up at the half-empty shelves that cover the walls of his Coconut Grove boutique.
“It used to be packed, packed, packed. All day, every day,” he said, grabbing a fistful of lightwash denim. “Those were the happy days.”
Merali’s Coconut Grove shop — Rani’s — has sold high-end denim, leather goods, shirts and jackets since it opened in 1971. But after hikes in rent and a significant drop in business, one of the Grove’s oldest stores will close for good at the end of July.
He’s already listed the antique cases on Craigslist and called all the customers who have outstanding store credit. As for the clothing?
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“I’ll probably sell it all online if I have the patience,” he muttered.
Rent has risen from around $5,000 per month to $8,000, Merali said. The decrease in foot traffic near his Main Highway location has affected business. Merali estimated sales are 35 percent of what they had been. White “50 percent off” signs pepper the shelves, table and racks.
The building’s landlord, Joe Harrison, declined to comment on the rent increase or confirm how much Merali paid in rent.
“It’s more of a situation of changes in the business landscape and retail space,” he said. “We certainly wish [Merali] well in his future endeavors.”
The store’s 2,000 square feet is “good when business is good,” Merali said. But when business is slow, “it’s hard to fill it up.”
Merali said the Harrison family has offered rent reduction during hard times and even allowed the shop to pay late if they needed to.
“It’s why I lasted so long in the Grove,” he said. “He was never on our tail.”
Merali, 65, said in the earlier days of the store, he had five employees who looked after customers. Jean fiends would buy $2,000 or $3,000 in merchandise at a time.
His was one of the first stores in South Florida to carry Italian brands like Diesel, Replay and Miss Sixty, and worked hard to convince his customers that investing in pricier jeans had more pros than cons.
“I told them to buy these jeans. If you don't like them, return them,” he said. “I got no returns. That's how I built up the business.”
Although customers don’t storm the store and climb the shelves to buy more jeans (true story, he said), he still has loyal customers.
Tanya Pergola, a 49-year-old yoga teacher, lives just three blocks away Rani’s. She lived in Tanzania in West Africa, Merali’s home country, and said she liked to wander into the store to share stories and memories. When she heard the news of the closing, she grew frustrated with the building’s landlords.
“I think it’s criminal to raise rent and push people out,” she said “I find it really hard to understand why a landlord cannot feel good about creating community.”
Harrison and his family have worked with Merali for over 30 years, and have an amiable relationship. He said the closing is due to market changes, and that they are still in the process of finding a tenant to lease the space.
“We’ve always tried to be reasonable and responsible,” Harrison said. “We’re cognizant of the general economic and retail environment.”
Another longtime customer and Grovite, Lem Brown, said he and his wife have been shopping at Rani’s since the ‘80s. He never thought he would spend extra money for high-quality jeans, he said, but Rani’s jeans “fit perfectly.”
“I was supporting him and supporting a local store,” said Brown, 63. “It’s sad because his sons were bugging him about retiring, but he didn’t want to retire. He’s old school. He likes connecting with people and providing his service to make people happy.”
Mary Anne Long, 60, comes to the Grove from Maryland when her family travels to their Islamorada home for vacation. Every time she visits, she buys clothes for all of her children and their spouses, and always brings treats and toys for Merali’s assistant’s dog, Chewy.
“Last time I saw [Merali] and he told me, and I was holding back tears,” she said. “I, of course, cried. I’ll be there on the 27th to say goodbye.”
The closing follows a pattern of small businesses struggling in the Grove. Merali predicts that the influx of offices and apartment complexes will make it look similar to other nearby cities.
“The Grove is the only area around here that still has character,” he said. “But it’s not going to last. It’s going to look like Coral Gables.”
Overall, however, the economy has been doing much better since the recession of 2008. And although historic places like Rani’s are being pushed out, the Grove is having more than a moment when it comes to newer restaurants and shops. The Miamians who once drove by the neighborhood on their way to Wynwood, Brickell and South Beach are sticking around.
Internationally acclaimed chefs have taken stake in Grove eateries like Glass & Vine and Harry’s Pizzeria , one street over. Hipsters hang out at Panther Coffee, which opened in May last year, and locals are buzzing about restaurants like Ariete and 33 Kitchen.
However, independent businesses, like Vino’s in the Grove, closed recently due to high rent.
In a Facebook post, the wine bar announced that the April closing was due to “significant rent increase” and construction that limited the bar’s ability to use their upstairs space.
More recently, the beloved Bookstore in the Grove changed owners June 18, citing rent that doubled. The store had planned to close, but ended up staying open after renovations.
One of the only other “old Grove” stores that remains is Maya Hatcha, which sells imported goods from India and handmade gifts.
The Coconut Grove Business Improvement District declined to comment on Rani’s closing, but said that the city recognizes the difficulty retailers face in today’s economy. According to the BID, the number of retailers have slowly decreased from 51 businesses in 2014 to 41 in 2016. On the contrary, vacant spaces have increased from 21 in 2014 to 28 in 2016.
“We recognize it's a difficult time for retail worldwide,” said Timothy Schmand, a spokesman for the Coconut Grove business group. “We're doing everything in the BID to make the Coconut Grove Business District attractive for retailers and their customers. The eclectic mix of shops in the Grove speak to our Bohemian past, and we hope to carry that in the future.”
According to Merali, a tricky industry comes with tricky decisions.
“Retail is very tough. Any area you go to, rents are very high,” he said. “It doesn't always balance out.”