Good Life

Owner Art Fine leads People’s Nation revolution

Peoples Nation along E. College Ave. in State College April 1, 2015.
Peoples Nation along E. College Ave. in State College April 1, 2015. CDT photo

Editor’s note: As part of visiting professor Andrew Cassel’s business writing class, Penn State students have written profiles of local businesses.

Once known as a “hippie co-op,” People’s Nation has gone upscale.

Art Fine, a 1971 Penn State graduate who purchased the site of the former T-shirt and novelty shop site on College Avenue eight years ago, kept the name of what in 1970 was a coffeehouse, sandal shop and waterbed store on Allen Street.

But the inside has been transformed.

“I felt the T-shirt and novelty store was a little played out,” Fine said. “It required a lot of creative people to keep that concept alive and viable, and because I’m spending a lot more time in New York City with grandchildren, it was time for a change.”

Fine initially resurrected the old People’s Nation name for a shop that specialized in custom T-shirt screen-printing. While fun and creative for Fine, the screen-printing equipment was large and cumbersome, broke often and required experienced operators.

So Fine, who also owns the nearby Barefoot and Metro shops, decided to make yet another change. In a speedy turnaround last September, he overhauled People’s Nation into an upscale clothing and jewelry boutique for women.

Fine made sure to include elements within his new concept to differentiate the store from other downtown State College retailers.

“In merchandising, it’s the presentation as much as it is the merchandise itself. My wife and I worked hard to pick out great pieces in New York City, so that all the tables and accessories serve as showpieces themselves, as well as showcase the merchandise,” Fine said.

The new concept appears to be working.

“Business is excellent,” Fine said. “I was concerned that transforming People’s Nation with the new concept would affect Metro’s business, but we had a terrific first year at People’s Nation, and Metro’s sales are actually up.”

Some of the new store’s success could be due to the closing of a nearby competitor, Mr. Charles, Fine said. But he added that the customer demographic has changed. While still appealing to college women, the new People’s Nation offers accessories, hosiery and jewelry designed to attract visiting parents, continuing-education students and others.

The new concept is more in line with the styles at Metro and Barefoot. This raises the possibility of People’s Nation drawing sales away from his other businesses. But Fine isn’t worried.

“Do I cannibalize my own business?” he said. “Yes, to a degree. (But) the way I look at it, if it wasn’t me, it would be someone else. I’d rather be my own competition and control what is sold at each location.”

A more worrisome form of competition increased several years ago in the form of Urban Outfitters, the Philadelphia-based chain of clothing and accessory shops with an international following. The chain’s arrival in State College caused Fine’s sales to decline at first, but sales returned to normal after a few months.

Fine said he thinks he can hold his own against the bigger store.

“In every category, I do a better job than Urban. I have a much better dress and jewelry selection, and better prices. Urban has menswear and kitschy stuff, and we try to stick with our core target market. I have friends in other cities that had their business devastated by the arrival of Urban Outfitters, but we’re doing OK.”

Fine said he sees an upward trend in clothing prices as well. China, where much of it is manufactured, is gradually transforming its own economy from agrarian to urban. This has caused Chinese manufacturing prices to rival those in the U.S., and resulted in more clothing being made domestically.

Fine said he still believes Chinese-made goods are competitive but he that these trends will affect clothing manufacturing in the future.

“We’re going to have to get better at making clothing again in this country. The stuff coming in from China, India and Vietnam will be less plentiful due to upward price trends, so we’re just going have to learn to make better-quality clothes,” he said.

Fine does most of his buying in New York, from the Magic Factory on the West Coast or overseas. Being immersed in New York City fashion trends can be a double-edged sword, he said; while sometimes viewed as a trend-setter, he also risks getting ahead of his market.

“State College is influenced by New York and New Jersey fashion, but also has a western Pennsylvania and Midwestern fashion influence, which is slower,” he said. “It took me two years to work skinny jeans and Uggs into the fashion scene in State College, but now they’re part of the standard uniform.”

People’s Nation still retains its custom T-shirt printing business.

“Around Thon and ... State Patty’s Day, and leading into intramural sports, I’ll get a lot of orders,” Fine said. “It’s a good business.”

That and the store’s 1970s-era name remain traditions that Fine clings to.

“The co-op only lasted for a little over a year, but in the minds and memories of people who went to Penn State at that time, it was loved,” Fine said.