Belmont resident Kay Wiggin wasn’t always sold on her town’s center. “Five years ago, it was a sad place,” speckled with empty storefronts, she said.
“I never thought there was a business district that could support a bakery,” said Wiggin, owner of Quebrada Baking Company in Arlington and Wellesley. But next month, she plans to open her first new bakery in 28 years — in Belmont, the upscale Boston suburb of about 24,000 that is best known these days as home to Mitt Romney.
The impending arrival of Quebrada Baking Co. will mark the latest in a series of Belmont companies started by women entrepreneurs. Along one block of Leonard Street alone there are 14 businesses owned by women. Several — such as high-end gift and stationery store Bells & Whistles, consignment boutique Revolve, jewelry gallery Alchemy 925, and home decor shop Marmalade — have opened within the last year and a half, and a couple are about to debut.
Brian Burke, of Burke Land Co., owns several buildings in the retail district — including a renovated firehouse where Kirstin deFrees opened Every Body Pilates last year. Burke said half of his tenants are women and when there’s a vacancy, “The inquiries have been running 2 to 1 with women in the lead.”
The Belmont trend, while largely anecdotal, is buttressed by national statistics.
There are now about 8.3 million businesses owned by women in the United States according to a recent study by American Express OPEN, its small business division. That is a 7 percent increase since 2007. In Massachusetts, the number of women-owned firms increased by 9 percent in the last five years to 193,900, according to Julie Weeks, an American Express research adviser.
“It’s a growing movement,” said Kristin Zecca, program director for the Center for Women & Enterprise, a Boston not-for-profit that helps women start businesses.
Historically, Zecca said, women have flocked to the service industry, but “entrepreneurship is the next logical place for women to advance because it’s giving them the opportunity to redefine the work-life paradigm.”
For Munya Avigail Upin, 59, starting a business in Belmont this year was a chance to make good on a lifelong dream. “Women are just so passionate about what we do,” said Upin, who is a metalsmith. “For 25 years I wanted to open a gallery.”
When a space became available in Belmont Center during the winter, Upin and Kirsten Ball, a jewelry maker from Carlisle, jumped on it. Alchemy 925 opened in April. Filled with an array of contemporary items from earrings for $28 to a museum-quality tea set for $20,000, the gallery would fit nicely on Boston’s Newbury Street.
“Right when we opened, it clicked,” said Ball.
Upin and Ball said the longtime success of nearby Thirty Petals Boutique, a dress shop run by Erica Kleinkopf, gave them the confidence to launch.
“She confirmed that this was the place to be,” said Upin.
Kleinkopf, who next month will celebrate her 19th year in business, said she is benefiting from the new wave of retail start-ups.
“Having lots of other stores makes Belmont a destination. People want to come and shop here,” she said.
Wealth management adviser Heather Walsh, who lives in Belmont, suspects women are turning to retail in greater numbers than men out of necessity.
“Women are becoming more responsible for their own retirement goals and financial future,” said Walsh. “They are . . . controlling greater amounts of wealth.”
When a woman sees a peer succeed, she wants to follow suit, according to Walsh.
“Women are great advocates and tend to be very loyal to other women,” said Walsh, who started a business group called Think Big Think Belmont to promote the town.
Belmont resident Jane Feinberg is one of those loyalists. She said she not only shops local, but gives preferential treatment to businesses operated by women.
“I’m more inclined to buy from a woman. It supports the local economy, and I do feel good about it,” Feinberg said.
But some Belmont business owners downplay the idea that the town is a new hub for women retailers.
“Our customers don’t think about it genderwise, they are proud of us,” said Suzanne Schalow, founder of Craft Beer Cellar on Leonard Street, which stocks up to 800 small-batch brews.
Opening their shop in the heart of town two years ago, Schalow and partner Kate Baker say they had a hunch that Belmont could support a store that offered an eclectic mix of ales.
“When we first started, the town was a little uptight and the perception was that it was stuffy,” said Schalow, who can rattle off the names of the best IPAs in a 20-mile radius in the time it takes to crack open a longneck. “I think we’ve helped the town loosen up.”
Schalow says the influx of female-run businesses is “a complete coincidence.” She believes it’s more likely that the town’s proximity to Cambridge and an underserved market is spurring most of the recent growth. “It’s hip and happening now,” Schalow said.
Burke, the developer, has a slightly different take.
“Women are more aggressive and educated in Belmont. They can afford to do it, so they do it,” he said.
First-time business owner Wendy Teplow opened Izabelle’s flower shop next to Vicki Lee’s on Trapelo Road in the town’s Cushing Square shopping district last fall. With her children grown, the Weston resident was ready to expand her home-based operation.
“Women of this age were brought up thinking you can do anything you want,” said Teplow, who was encouraged to take the plunge by colleague Vicki Lee Boyajian.
Boyajian’s cafe and bakeshop has anchored a key corner in Cushing Square for seven years. “I come from a very entrepreneurial family,” said Boyajian.
Growing up in Watertown, the 57-year-old self-taught chef had a strong role model: her 82-year-old mother, Sonia. The elder Boyajian has owned the commercial and residential firm Real Estate 109 for 30 years. It happens to be right next door to Vicki Lee’s.
“My mother always gave me the encouragement, if you believe you can do it, you can do it,” Vicki Lee said.
“Failure is not in my blood.”