Kevin Eisele repairs shoes and crafts custom boots from a small storefront on Second Avenue North in Billings, the only shop of its kind downtown. He's been there since summer 2016, and he's stayed busy since the day he opened.
"I love it down here," he said.
The custom boot making, which makes up the majority of his business, comes from online orders, referrals from previous customers and work orders from orthopedic doctors. The shoe repair mostly comes from walk-in customers.
"It's the foot traffic down here," he said.
New boots at Eisele's Custom Footwear
Working at Eisele's Custom Footwear
Eisele's Custom Footwear tools
Custom boot at Eisele's Custom Footwear
Kevin Eisele at Eisele's Custom Footwear
Terakedis Fine Art & Jewelry
Francois Morin helps customers
Francois Morin at Le Fournil Artisinal Bakery
Le Fournil Artisinal Bakery bread
For Eisele, the downtown location has been one of the best things for his business.
The degree of difficulty can be high for launching a specialized, one-service business downtown, where a few storefronts turnover regularly. But, as Eisele found, sometimes that downtown location can help a niche business thrive.
Three blocks away from Eisele's Custom Footwear, Francois Morin's new Le Fournil artisan bakery is up and running. He's been open for a month, squeezed into a storefront between Big Dipper Ice Cream and Rockets Wraps.
Morin, a native of France, only sells traditional French baguettes and loaves of country and sourdough bread. He bakes them daily and when they're gone, they're gone.
"One guy complained," Morin said. "He came in at 5:30 and I was sold out."
Le Fournil is open Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and again from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. He opens Saturday at 9 a.m. and stays open until the bread is gone. His bread shop has sold out every day he's been open.
He fully embraces his status as a niche business.
"It's downtown," he said. "It's good to have niche (stores)."
He pointed to the various coffee shops and lunch spots, to the art stores and gift shops. A person can come downtown, get a cup of coffee, walk down the block and get a loaf of bread and then shop for gifts across the street or eat lunch and get ice cream, he said.
Everything is within walking distance. One store doesn't have to have everything, he said. It's good for owners to be able to specialize in something and that way sell a superior product.
"I don't do pastries. If you want good pastries, go to Veronika's," he said, referring to Veronika's Pastry Shop three blocks east on Montana Avenue. "If you want good bread, come here."
Jilan Hall-Johnson is a big believer in a downtown that offers a unique, one-of-a-kind service. She and her husband are transplants to Billings and have lived all over the country as they follow his military career. After landing in Billings, she wanted to bring a bit of urban culinary variety to her adopted home town.
So in February she'll open The Sassy Biscuit next door to Brockel's Chocolate on North 29th Street. Her shop will specialize in biscuits and gravy, both sweet and savory, and feature specialty versions of pancakes and waffles.
"I wanted to bring big-city living to a small-town place," she said.
Attempting to attract visitors and shoppers to downtown Billings, specifically to give them a big-city experience, can carry a bit of risk. Sam Randall runs Magpie Jewelry Gallery on the corner of North 27th Street and Second Avenue North, and said big city issues like good parking, traffic and a sense of safety downtown can keep potential shoppers away.
Running a small business downtown is a tightrope walk.
"It's very risky," she said.
Randall is moving out of her storefront and joining forces with Zack Terakedis of Terakedis Fine Art on Broadway Avenue.
"I'll maintain my own entity inside his space," she said.
Randall loves being downtown. The city and the Downtown Billings Alliance have done a good job partnering with the Billings Police Department to keep downtown streets safe for shoppers and visitors, she said.
She's believes more can be done to solve the parking problem and to advertise to the rest of Billings what downtown has to offer. She also hopes more stability with the businesses that locate downtown can help give the downtown area a sense of momentum.
"There's been so much fluctuation you never get that solid base," she said. "It's close. We're always on that cusp, it seems like."
The Downtown Billings ArtWalk has been a boon to her business and the other art galleries in the neighborhood. Consistent foot traffic is vital for niche downtown businesses to survive, she said.
Antonia Craighill agrees. She owns Velvet Cravings, a cupcake shop on the corner of Third Avenue North and Broadway. She's been open for five years and has kept a steady flow of business.
"It's a great location," she said.
On her corner, she's able to plug into the Yellowstone Valley Farmers' Market every summer and fall, and city parades march right past her front door. Parade crowds always find their way into her her shop.
She said roughly 40 percent of her business is walk-in traffic. The rest comes from large cupcake or cookie orders by parties, businesses and weddings. If walk-in business were more consistent she feels like she'd have a little more security.
For example, she said, "Today I couldn't keep a cupcake in the store to save my life."
They all sold out and kept her on her toes. Other days, she doesn't see anyone.
Still, she loves downtown and is invested in seeing it thrive. Kevin Eisele, the boot maker, agrees. The foot traffic he's received being downtown has changed the way he does business.
"I've been building boots for 26 years," he said. "But I've come to like shoes."
His shop is small. He shares a wall with the preschool next door — it gets so loud sometimes that it may as well be a curtain dividing the two businesses, Eisele says.
But he loves what he does and he loves doing it downtown.
"I could use more room," he said with a smile. "But people know where I'm at. That makes it hard to move."