Jolie Nantz misses the laughter the most.
Standing in the kitchen with her mother, the Do-Lish owner would listen and watch her customers transform into more child-like versions of themselves.
“Everyone turned into a 10-year-old in (Do-Lish), just happy and giddy,” she said. “You know what I love about our restaurant, our little space? It’s a happy place. When people come here, they’re just so happy.”
Ever since Sept. 5, when Nantz stops to listen, she hears nothing.
She does hear the cars passing on West University Avenue, students chattering as they walk by the storefront, but she doesn’t hear laughter.
Two weeks after Nantz opened her shop in April, she found out her edible cookie dough shop and bakery was already on the chopping block. Her landlord had sold the building to a large Chicago-based corporation, and she and other business like Kabab House and Wolfgang Gainesville would have to be out by October. Nantz had no idea the fate of her small business was sealed before it began.
“(The landlord) was greedy enough to take the rent and not let me know,” she said.
Do-Lish’s end is not an isolated incident, and it’s becoming more common as big businesses close in on what they see as a flourishing college town. As new high-rise housing complexes pop up, more small-business owners are closing their doors and saying goodbye to the customers they know by name.
Nantz cherished the relationships she built with her regulars for the six months her shop was open, she said. When she announced Do-Lish was closing, she gave away tables, chairs and remaining cookie dough to frequent customers.
Nantz was heartbroken by the abrupt ending of the bakery she invested so much time and energy into. What frustrates her the most is knowing it’s likely to happen to other Gainesville small-business owners, she said.
“Corporate is really taking over,” she said. “So it is more difficult for small businesses to be part of the fabric now.”
It’s a feeling echoed by others — owners and consumers alike.
Dave Johnson, 32, was born and raised in Gainesville and has watched as the city trades its culture for CVS Pharmacies and big apartment complexes, he said.
“If you keep destroying the culture to build apartments, nobody is going to want to live in the apartments because there’s no culture,” he said.
Johnson worries Gainesville will continue gentrifying and lose its charm.
“People are going to have this very generic impression of Gainesville, and it’s going to stop being relevant,” he said.
Johnson said he’s vocal about supporting small businesses because he believes local customers can save them. When the city began discussing a development project that would wipe out The Jam, a downtown music venue, a swarm of supporters came out of the woodwork, he said. At a City Commission meeting, they lined up, pleading to save the building.
In June, The Jam was demolished, according to Alligator archives, but Johnson said the citizens’ presence still made an impact.
“Nobody really knows that we care so much until we show up and speak up and make it known that we do,” he said.
City Commissioner Helen Warren said preserving small business in Gainesville is more complicated than it appears.
The city can’t play favorites when updating some of its decrepit infrastructure, she said. Warren believes small-business owners should be supported, but the City Commission plays a limited role.
“We can’t show favoritism towards businesses because they’re local or not,” she said. “We’ve got to look at, ‘Are you going to provide something that’s a service and a benefit to the community, and who can do that best?’”
Some buildings in the city being demolished are rundown and unsafe, Warren said.
“I see some of these structures that are being identified to be removed, and I do think that we’ll get something in there that will look better than that,” she said.
Warren said it’s difficult to balance honoring Gainesville’s culture and breathing new life into it.
“We have this fear of letting old things go and letting new things come in,” she said.
While the City Commission has a restricted role when it comes to helping small businesses, Warren said there are a host of places for owners to turn to like CareerSource North Central Florida and Santa Fe College’s Business Incubation program for support and guidance.
For Nantz, her time as a small-business owner ended sooner than she anticipated, and she fears others will suffer a similar demise. She hopes to hear the laughter again one day.
“It’s frustrating to see people who have a dream, and they can never realize it,” she said.