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Lakewood boutique owner Carly Jones closes her doors but refuses to leave her dream behind

January 28, 2019 GMT

Lakewood boutique owner Carly Jones closes her doors but refuses to leave her dream behind

LAKEWOOD, Ohio – Standing near the corner of Madison and Alameda Avenues, Carly Jones nearly chokes up. Her mood is as gray as the sky on this dreary January afternoon.

Carly is revisiting the corner to tell this cleveland.com columnist about her painful – and overdue – decision to close Level Up Boutique, the clothing store she had opened in April 2017.

Her disposition this day in glaring contrast to the one on display the last time we met here. Back then, she was overcome with emotion triggered by her pride in having opened the store at this corner in the historic Birdtown neighborhood.

The opening of her store had represented so much more than a business venture. It represented a possible path out of Cleveland’s impoverished Central neighborhood, where she lives with her two daughters, 9 and 12. It represented the fulfilment of a promise she had made to herself, her daughters and mother to make her own opportunities. Her optimism was reflected in two gold-glitter-encrusted walls that greeted customers.

But she quickly became trapped in a Sisyphean task. She wasn’t selling enough clothes to cover the store’s overhead, so she had to work more hours outside the store as a driver for an app-based food-delivery service to pay the store’s rent and buy inventory. Doing so meant less time at the store selling clothes. And her business partner was often AWOL and wasn’t contributing money to cover costs. Falling behind on the store’s rent, Carly was at her breaking point.

“I would be homeless if I kept on going back and forth with it,” Carly tells me. “My challenge was not having support. I was paying my own rent, store rent and buying inventory. It was at the point that I was working 7 a.m. in morning to midnight and not even keeping the store open.”

She says her plan was to reopen after she took a break, possibly with a new partner and money to make good on the rent.

Shortly after posting a notice about the store’s closing, Carly worked more than 12 hours delivering food. When she got home, well into the night, she turned off her phone and collapsed in her bed, missing a text message the next morning from the store’s landlord. The message said that her store had been burglarized and she needed to come to Lakewood ASAP.

She spotted the text when her kid’s fighting woke her.

“I cried the whole drive to the store,” she tells me.

Lakewood police later arrested a man that they believed was behind several smash-and-grabs in the area. Carly wonders aloud if there is more to it. Nagging her is the fact that some of her best clothing items were taken while less expensive items were left behind.

Regardless, the break-in reinforced reality. Without insurance, there was no way she could make rent and buy new inventory. So, Carly returned to the store’s keys to the landlord to avoid eviction.

She hopes to a legal battle over a couple of months of unpaid rent and 18 months remaining on her lease.

Carly shows me recent text messages between her and the landlord in which they discuss a settlement. The landlord tells her he’ll accept $650 and let her walk away. (He said he’s lined up a new tenant for February.) When she balks, he threatens to take her to court for four months of back rent, October 2017 through January 2018, plus legal costs.

“Take the deal the owner graciously offered and regroup,” he writes in one text.

Carly’s counter offers fall short.

“I don’t have the money and I have nothing to get,” she tells me, noting she still has items in the store she needs to retrieve.

At the moment, the issue remains unresolved.

As we talk and walk, Carly reflects about all the people who have helped her, from people who read about her in The Plain Dealer and cleveland.com’s A Greater Cleveland series, to her pastor, who helped her buy inventory during the store’s final months, to No Curvy Gal Left Behind, a network of women entrepreneurs.

“I am blessed,” she says. “People were rooting for me.

But does she have regrets?

It’s a question Carly says she’s thinks a lot about.

“I don’t have regrets, just lessons learned,” she says.

The lessons, she says, include practical ones, such as how to manage inventory and file business taxes, as well as less tangible ones, such as recognizing her own limits.

“It was very complicated and I didn’t think it was complicated,” she says.

She says her children didn’t want her to close the store, having bragged about it to friends before. They also like Lakewood, though the suburb proved too far from Carly’s home and the kid’s school, Carly admits.

Despite the end of Level Up Boutique, Carly says will still try to sell clothes. For now, she plans to sell them online with a variation of the Level Up Boutique name. And she is already talking to a potential new partner, a trusted and lifelong friend with some business experience.

Carly says she ultimately wants to open another store, perhaps closer to home.

“It’s my dream and I can’t give up,” she tells me as we end our visit. “The goal is to start and finish it. I need to do for my kids’ future.”

A Greater Cleveland is a call to action to the community to help remove the barriers to success faced by Cleveland children in poverty. It is a project of cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer. Because of the sensitive family matters discussed in this series, we have provided the people we write about anonymity and are using pseudonyms to identify them. See the entirety of our project by clicking here.