Commerce Street is cooler than ever

Written by Joe Stumpe

Back in the early 1900s, it could lay claim as the broomcorn corn capital of the world (not the edible kind, but a plant used to make brooms). In the late 1900s, some intrepid artists started turning its old buildings into work and gallery space. Now it's home to a variety of creative businesses — and just plain home to residents of loft apartments and condos.

"We have clients that come from San Francisco that sit in our office and say, ‘We had no idea this was in Wichita,'" Carlos Fernandez of Clutch Studio said.

"I love that it's got the authentic Wichita vibe," said Nicole Boles of Couture Ever After.

Indeed, with buildings that date back to the 1800s and a brick-paved street, Commerce probably presents as good a picture of what early Wichita used to look as any thoroughfare in the city. Entrepreneurs such as Fernandez and Alicia Ybarra of Vanya Designs have used the bones of the old warehouses along the street to create some memorable interiors.

Ybarra notes that the street is currently becoming something of a one-stop shop for wedding planners, with dresses, invitations, event planning and a venue all available.

The city dubbed the area the Commerce Street Arts District a few years back, in recognition of the galleries located there. The street is a popular stop for Final Friday gatherings and has hosted many other events as well. More recently, the opening of the Finn Lofts has given it a solid core of full-time residents to go along with people who work there. Here's a look at five businesses that call it home:

WICHITA BINDERY, 622 S. Commerce, is probably the oldest and biggest business on the street. Johnny Marshall said his grandfather started it in 1946 and his father moved it to Commerce in the 1980s. The 20,000-square-foot building housed a company that made wooden doors in the 1880s, loading them onto the trains that run just to the east of Commerce. Marshall noted that many of the street's buildings were connected in the past, as can be seen from remnants of doorways. The bindery also owns a parking lot used for events at nearby Intrust Bank Arena.

The business is a full-service trade binder for area print shops and also does a lot of retail business. Embossed wedding invitations, business cards and pocket folders used by banks and attorneys are some of its specialties, and design services are offered. Marshall said the bindery's letter press produces a classier look than more recent technology.

“The old wedding invitations were done by letter press, which gives them a special look. They look way different than just printing them on a copier.”

Marshall said his family enjoys the atmosphere along Commerce and definitely feels a part of its artsy leanings.

“It holds a historical kind of feeling to it," he said. "It's changed a lot. Now it's housing apartments. It seems like a lot of people that are into art like living here.”

CLUTCH STUDIO, 416 S. Commerce, builds mobile apps for clients in industries ranging from food and transportation to finance, recreation and the nonprofit world. Carlos Fernandez says he moved Clutch to Commerce about a year ago for a simple reason.

“Let's face it, you come to work and you want to accomplish a goal. You've got to give yourself the right ambiance to accomplish the goal.”

And Commerce has that ambiance. Clutch's space features high ceilings, exposed brick walls, original beams and a loft. The business has taken part in Final Friday gatherings and hosted concerts.

“We kind of knew [Commerce] had been real creative, with several studios and galleries for artists," Fernandez said. "That was the idea we were looking for. We're definitely a creative studio. We try to bring that, not only to our employees, but also our clients. I know the individuals that work for Clutch have to be visually stimulated as well as creatively stimulated.”

VANYA DESIGNS, 520 S. Commerce, is best-known for Alicia Ybarra's custom wedding dresses and formal wear, but the shop also does alterations and rents tuxedos. Ybarra said she was first drawn to Commerce by its central location and cheaper rent, but since moving there this summer she has since fallen in love with the street's old buildings and creative mindset.

“I love the artsy feel down here. I love the brick street. This space is just stinking amazing.”

The shop includes a reception area, display space, fitting rooms and workspace highlighted by tall curtains and a series of 13 chandeliers. Ybarra said some visitors "just stand here and look for a minute, particularly clients who've follow me from my previous places. They'll say, 'Oh my gosh, this is so pretty. I feel like I'm in New York City.'"

Ybarra plans to take part in the street's Final Friday events and host a few of her own as well. Ybarra notes that with the recent opening of The Hudson wedding reception and event venue at 508 S. Commerce, wedding planners and their clients can now get dresses, invitations, a place to hold their wedding and someone to design it on Commerce.

“We're able to offer full service to brides.”

COUTURE EVER AFTER, the event and space designer referred to by Ybarra, hasn't actually moved to Commerce yet, but owner Nicole Boles says she is close to doing so. "We're sort of developing this wedding industry nook in Wichita," she said.

Meanwhile, she's a presence on the street thanks to her work for and with Ybarra, whose shop she designed. “We met at the Wichita Bridal Expo in January," Ybarra said. "We just both fell in love with each other. We both have a mission and purpose as far as giving our clients that ultimate experience.”

"Everything in here — the layout, the mirrors, the painting on the floor — was her design," Ybarra said, remembering to give her husband credit for actually building it.

Boles calls herself an "event and experience designer," meaning that whether she's working on an interior that will be seen and used for years or a party that will be over in two hours, the goal is the same: "All the signs and sounds come together for a great experience."

HARRIS & CO. FRAME SHOP, 424 S. Commerce, has been offering all sorts of custom framing work on Commerce for 11 of its 25 years in business. Michael Harris says the shop serves both artists and the general public and is busier than ever thanks to the redevelopment of Commerce, including the addition of needed parking spaces between the buildings and railroad tracks to the east.

“There's a lot of history here," Harris said. "I like it a lot. There's quite a creative atmosphere.”

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