Downtown State College has been a crucial element of Penn State culture for decades. Downtown has been constantly blossoming and branching out as generations come and go from Happy Valley. It’s a quintessential daily ritual for most students to go explore downtown and unwind after a long day or week of classes.
But what about some of the small businesses that have seemingly always been here? And who has been responsible for keeping them above ground for so many years? Douglas Albert, owner of his own gallery as well as Uncle Eli’s Artist Marketplace, has managed to keep the spirit of downtown alive and thriving.
Starting out as a business owner while still being a student in the 70s, Albert invested everything he had into his first establishment of Uncle Eli’s. He was quite familiar with both what students themselves needed as well as what professors requested from their students.
“I opened up that store because there wasn’t a place [to buy supplies]…I started very, very, very small with very little inventory when I was still a student,” Albert says. “But, I knew what people needed – and as the business grew and [as] I gained more support, I began speculating on a broader range of inventory. Between 1970 and 1975 I moved five times until I settled on Beaver Avenue.”
As the business grew, he was able to diversify the store’s inventory for the benefit of his customers’ needs. From the success of Uncle Eli’s, Albert was also able to open his own luxury art gallery where he features high-end, hand-crafted artisan pieces that range from oil paintings to jewelry to dinnerware.
Albert has seen students grow more and more dependent on shopping online and at large corporations exclusively.
“One word, the internet,” Albert says about the challenges of a successful business’s upkeep.
“I sell the same things Target sells,” says Albert, “probably at the same price, but now people can go to Target because they grew up with Target…I think once you know [Uncle Eli’s] is there, you’re loyal, but it’s just getting people in the door.”
In this postmodern world of “next-day shipping” and “in-store pickup,” local and small business owners face a very difficult challenge that can only be solved by strengthening a relationship with loyal and devoted customers. Initiatives like “Small Business Saturday” and “Shop Small” have been assisting local businesses and giving them a voice so that the corporate industries do not obtain too much expansion.
But the real solution can only be found within the customers themselves. Downtown State College’s independently owned businesses have begun to shrink over the years because of big-name brands like Urban Outfitters or Target and large chain restaurants like Chipotle and Panera Bread taking over large amounts of reliable customers.
“There’s only a handful of us,” says Albert. “I can’t figure out what this escape room is – the guys put a fortune into it – and that chinese market next to it is never open, this guy here with the tacos is doing fantastic, but if you take the hair salons, the chinese places, and the tattoo places out of the equation there’s not a lot of [small] businesses left.”
Albert agrees that Uncle Eli’s is “the heart of downtown” because it’s seemingly a glimmer of hope for other small businesses. By establishing a need-based inventory for students when there was a lack of such supplies, Albert was able to transform that ambition into an almost 50-year-old successful business that students, faculty and the State College community benefit from each year.
Located just three blocks from the Allen Street gates, Uncle Eli’s still stands on 129 East Beaver Ave. with a plethora of art supplies, posters, prints, jewelry, trinkets, doodads and knickknacks ready to serve their community.