Sour Note

After 16 years, the song is ending at Hear's Music

Over the weekend, Britton Dornquast was still hoping he'd wake up from the nightmare his life became on Valentine's Day.

After 16 years of running Hear's Music, an independent music store on Campbell Avenue north of the university, Dornquast has been evicted. He has until the end of the month to clear out his entire inventory, shut the doors and turn in the keys.

His plans to sell the business are in ruins. Any chance at an orderly liquidation is shot to hell.

"My business is toast," Dornquast says. "This is my life. This is my retirement. This is my kids' college. This is everything I've worked for 16 years. It's gone."

Dornquast got the bad news on Wednesday, Feb. 14, when he opened an envelope from the attorney for the strip mall's new owners. Inside was a notice that he was to vacate his store, at 2508 N. Campbell Ave., by Feb. 28.

Richard Shenkarow, the property's longtime leasing agent and an investor in the Campbell Shops LLC partnership that bought the property last year, said the decision to kick Dornquast was driven by his tenant's reaction to a rent increase brought up during a conversation on Monday, Feb. 12. Shenkarow says Dornquast "would not pay the rental rate that was required for the property. That's what it's about. End of discussion."

But Dornquast says he never had a chance to accept or decline the new rate, because he was booted from the center before he could even consult with his potential buyers.

The eviction is a deathblow for the store that Dornquast launched in 1991, using an award-winning business plan he developed at the UA's Eller Business School. While Dornquast stocked a wide variety of recorded music, the store filled a particular niche for customers who were seeking obscure or local artists and dependable customer service.

A decade after opening the store, Dornquast led a group of area merchants who opposed a 2002 city transportation proposition that included plans to allow Grant Road to tunnel underneath Campbell Avenue.

After the measure was defeated by voters, Dornquast continued to work with his fellow business owners along Campbell, forming the Campbell Avenue Merchants Association and drawing up plans to spruce up the shopping district. They printed a guided map of stores and restaurants along the corridor. They persuaded UA architecture professor Corky Poster to work with his students to draw up a master plan for the area and landed more than $1 million in local and federal grants for crosswalks, traffic signals and banners, with landscaping and other improvements on the horizon.

Roger Sliker, the owner of the Raging Sage coffeehouse next door to the shopping center, said he was "sad and disappointed" that Dornquast had been evicted.

"Britton was there with the rest of us from the very beginning," says Sliker, who organized the merchants' association alongside with Dornquast. "I'm worried, because I don't think any of us really stand alone. ... I'm very optimistic about Campbell Avenue, but when someone comes in out of the blue from somewhere else and buys property simply as a financial investment, they probably don't understand the real value of what they have."

Dornquast remains devastated by the eviction.

"You do all this stuff out of the belief that you're doing the right thing, and we get the renovation and the reinvestment, and you're not even a part of it," Dornquast says. "You're not in the boat."

Being in the record business is no easy thing these days as more music is downloaded from the Internet, both legally and illegally.

"It's a tough industry," says Dornquast, who adapted with a mail-order arm of his business and an emphasis on personal service for a loyal base of customers.

But after the 2002 sales-tax vote, Dornquast found himself spending more time on jostling in local government--such as serving on the small-business commissions run by the city and the county--and less time in the record store.

Last year, Dornquast started working with a broker to sell Hear's Music. He says he had a number of people interested in buying the business, but a key question involved the monthly rent--and when he talked to Shenkarow's staff, he claims he got the runaround. When he talked to Shenkarow last week, he had hoped that the leasing agent would consider giving him a break, given that he had been in the shopping center since 1991, but Shenkarow informed him the rent was increasing from $12 a square foot to $20 a square foot, with additional increases in the taxes and fees.

Two days after their last conversation, Dornquast got the letter kicking him out of the center.

"I was completely blindsided," Dornquast says. "I never, ever thought in a million years that we would not have the opportunity to renegotiate our lease in the center we've been in 16 years."

The eviction has torpedoed any hope he had of making a deal to sell the business, because much of the value was tied up in the longtime location.

City Councilwoman Karin Uhlich, whose Ward 3 offices are around the corner on Grant Road, doesn't want to see more shops leave the shopping center. She said she met with Shenkarow last week and hopes that he will work to ensure that other tenants, such as Bob's Deli and the Book Stop, don't get the boot with only two weeks' notice.

"Campbell Avenue is made up of a lot of really great, small, locally owned businesses, so any time a crisis like this hits, it's obviously a concern," Uhlich says.

Shenkarow says he wants to keep those businesses in the center.

"They're the kind of tenants that we want," Shenkarow says. "I'd like to see all local people continue to be part of the property."

But Shenkarow's goodwill doesn't extend to Britton Dornquast, who plans to throw one hell of a going-out-of-business sale on Saturday, Feb. 25.

"We're going to have live music," Dornquast says. "We're going to have a blow-out sale. There will be a lot people crying on the counter; there'll be a lot of people getting pissed."