Something recently happened on Charles Street that was disconcerting. It appears to have worked out okay. I’ll tell you about it because it has to do with what makes a good neighborhood shopping district. It has a good ending—so far. I’m not naming most names because it doesn’t matter at this point. The sources for this story are credible, but not all the participants have returned my calls, so we’ll go with what we’ve been told.
Several weeks ago a real estate broker approached a Charles Street building owner who had a locally owned shop as a long-time, street-level tenant. Let’s pretend the name of the shop is Station Ten.
The broker told the owner that Station Ten was going out of business. The broker also said he had a new tenant who wanted the space. It was an international cosmetics company. My sources say the company is called Bloom, but again the particular name is not that important.
The building owner may have been surprised to hear that Station Ten was leaving. Coincidentally, though, Station Ten’s shopkeeper had always had a year-to-year lease, and had not answered a recent letter about renewing that lease. That was because Station Ten wanted to discuss something with the owner, and had not gotten around to speaking with that person even though a few phone calls had been exchanged with the local broker who handled such matters.
But Station Ten had no intention of closing.
In June, Station Ten received a letter from the owner’s local broker telling the shopkeeper to leave by August 31. The broker’s letter said the shopkeeper had been an “exemplary tenant.” And Station Ten confirmed this—on time with the rent check, maintaining the premises, having one of the nicest shops on the street.
Station Ten was surprised, shocked, angry, confused and flabbergasted. Little by little, though, a story emerged among the Charles Street merchants who were privy to what was going on.
The first broker had either been misinformed or had lied to the owner about Station Ten’s intentions. The international chain, everyone suspected, was willing to pay considerably more for the attractive space than the owner was getting from the long-time local tenant.
Station Ten hadn’t waited long to respond to the yearly letter about the lease, but had unwittingly played into the hand of the first broker and his cosmetics chain when Station Ten’s owner hadn’t immediately answered the annual letter.
And now the “exemplary” long-term tenant would have no shop after August 31.
But then things changed. Positions shifted. Everyone may be happy.
Maybe it was a call from a newspaper columnist. When people see that their actions or behavior are going to see the light of day, they often behave or act differently than they would otherwise.
Or maybe someone talked with the owner and he/she decided the extra money didn’t matter that much. Or maybe the owner and the broker together realized that installing an international chain on a street known for its local flavor wasn’t such a good idea after all.
Because if chains fill up Charles Street, the special quality the street has will evaporate, and the buildings housing those businesses will lose value over time compared to the value they would enjoy if they were special. The street will look like every other street in America. Or maybe, God help us, it will look like a shopping mall.
Beacon Hill has some chain businesses already. Most of them are local, not national. But you can learn from them. With notable exceptions, the chain owners tend not to participate as much as the local owners do in the business-promotion activity on the street. They typically take. They rarely give. A good example is the CVS at Charles Circle, which still feels no obligation to maintain the sidewalk and trees in front of its space, even though it lies at one of the entrances to the neighborhood.
Residential buildings also lose value in an assault of chains. Who wants to live in a place boasting a Chuck E. Cheese, The Body Shop, Petco and eight banks? Beacon Hill would look like the Burlington Mall without the parking lot. We’d all want to sell out and move to Concord, Massachusetts, which still has local stores in its business district because that town has imposed strong zoning against chains. You can walk to do your errands in that town too, so it would be pretty easy for downtown residents to make that switch.
Beacon Hill neighbors mounted a strong defense when Capital One bank tried to oust the Charles Street Market. But this episode shows that Charles Street’s local flavor is always under assault by greed, shenanigans or simply an international chain that thinks it would be really cute to set up shop on a quaint street surrounded by the homes of titans of industry (and the rest of us.)
Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at BostonColumn.com.