A few minutes after 6 p.m., Donna Frederick turned the hanging sign on the front door to closed as she locked up the toy shop. The rhythmic beat of landing jumps from the dance studio above drummed through the ceiling.

Frederick has worked at Playhouse Toy Store—located at 702 Ninth Street—since 1995 and owned it since 2008. She’s watched the street change over the years as old businesses like Francesca's Dessert Caffe shutter their doors. A Waffle House popping up down the street over the summer, however, seemed out of the ordinary. 

“To me that was a shock,” she said.

Frederick said she doesn’t view the restaurant chains that have appeared on the street—including well-known franchises like Subway, Jimmy John’s and Panera Bread—as being a negative for the street.

“The new businesses have brought some traffic to the street in a good way, but because we’re smaller we don’t have the dollars to do some of the things the corporate businesses do,” she said.

In recent months, Ninth Street has seen lost a number of its signature eateries. Francesca’s, a close neighbor of the toy shop, closed up abruptly in November because the landlord planned to double the rent, Frederick explained. 

At the other end of the street, George’s Java has been transformed into a Southern home store, with the owner leaving a note on the door explaining it was due to health problems. Chubby’s Tacos has also departed, with its owners filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy

Trees that were previously commonplace on Ninth Street were cut down a few years ago. Parking has also become an issue in recent years, Frederick explained.

“I think the local people are still coming to Ninth Street and being supportive, but it’s not the same vibe. It’s definitely not,” she said. “When they cut the trees down—it’s a whole series of things—it made the street kind of not home-y.”

The lot across the street from many of Ninth Street's small shops began charging $1 for an hour of parking, and Frederick said customers were concerned about the security guards for the large parking lot in front of Harris Teeter if they tried to wander across the street. She said that she thinks the guards have lightened up a bit since the local shops made some noise about it.

“People tend to go where it’s easier to shop, and that’s what happened,” she said. 

It’s not an “us versus them,” situation, Frederick said, because the merchants all sat down together at the beginning of the influx and discussed the situation. 

Property values on the street have also been rising in recent years, as documented by the upping of taxable value for buildings on the street when Durham assessed property for 2016. 

Interactive by Bre Bradham

Justin Waterfield, an electron molecular technologist in the Duke University Health System, has lived in Durham for nine years. Ninth Street is one of his favorite haunts, in part because it embodies the hipness of Durham. His wife loves the Regulator Bookshop, and he frequent Dain’s Place for burgers and beers on Friday nights. 

When Francesca’s shuttered its doors due to rent, Waterfield viewed it as the last straw. He emailed city council to let them know he was concerned about it. 

“Rent going up is a normal thing, unfortunately,” he said. “But doubling your rent? That’s a little unnecessary.”

Frederick noted that as downtown booms and publicity focuses on it, Ninth Street is left off the map. The street has been able to take care of itself, she said, but that’s changing. 

“Now we need help,” she said. “How are they promoting it? Is this the shopping district, or just a mere mention? I think that’s what most of the merchants feel concerned about.”

She said that going forward, a primary concern is getting city leadership to view the area as a business area, instead of focusing all the energy downtown. 

Frederick explained that her building is owned by the managers of the shop’s next door neighbor, Ninth Street Flowers, so she hasn’t faced as much of a squeeze with the rising rents as other businesses on the street. 

The flow of customers, however, from the parking woes and economic shift downtown have strained the 35-year old toy store.

“With us, we’re seeing, honestly, month by month,” she said. “We want to be here, we want to be that place where you can drop in with grandma or a visitor, but we also have to be realistic to say it costs money to do that.”