Shoppers strolling the well-maintained sidewalks of Concord Center always find plenty to look at as they pass by the inviting shops: jewelry, fine art, stationery, gourmet food, sporting goods, books by authors both local and international.
But recently the view has also included something that was far less common in previous years: empty windows.
At least three prominent storefronts in the Main Street area are currently vacant, including the iconic building at the west corner of Main and Walden that for years housed The Toy Shop of Concord. Just a few blocks away on Thoreau Street stands another empty storefront across from the train station, with La Provence now shuttered.
For one of New England’s most walkable villages — and beloved tourist destinations — even the relatively small number of vacancies seems to loom large. Is there more to Concord’s changing retail climate than the groundswell of online shopping that plagues shopping districts, malls, and stores nationwide?
Not to worry, says John Boynton IV, a local investor and lifelong resident of the town. Owner of several commercial properties in downtown Concord and the neighboring village of West Concord, Boynton sees the string of vacancies in Concord Center as more a coincidence than a trend.
“One reflects a shop owner who retired; one is a building that was recently sold and is undergoing renovations by its new owner; and one was a business that just didn’t thrive in this location,” he reels off.
And besides, says Boynton, when one business closes, another opens. For example, in his property on Walden Street, the restaurant Bondir has departed but a restaurant called Fiorella’s will soon open in the same space.
Sharon Spaulding, manager of Spaulding Management LLC, concurs. Among the properties she owns in Concord Center, there’s just one vacancy, and she has a new tenant signed to be open for business by mid-October.
Things are also looking up for the beloved two-story brick building that stands empty at the west corner of Main and Walden. Shoppers in decades past remember when it was anchored by the old-fashioned Snow’s Pharmacy. Then it was reinvented as The Toy Shop, where the front door was painted red and white columns were wrapped with garlands at Christmastime.
Two years ago, The Toy Shop moved to a different location in town, and its former home was shuttered. However, Burlington-based Linear Retail, which purchased the building a year ago, has just announced its first signed tenant: The London-based Caffe Nero will open in the street-level space in early 2018.
Joel Kadis, a partner at Linear, said that as soon as he and his colleagues set eyes on the property, they knew it belonged in their portfolio.
“We’re not a mall buyer or a big-box buyer. Our thing is Main Street,” said Kadis, head of leasing and development at Linear. “We love small shops in districts where people live and work and play.”
Other Linear holdings that reflect this priority include buildings in Newton Centre, Lexington Center, and Wellesley.
Kadis said that even though his company has poured nearly $2 million into renovations to bring the antique building up to code, he has no qualms about the Concord retail climate.
“The first two questions we ask ourselves when looking at an acquisition are its proximity to where people live and where they work. Concord has a tertiary element as well, in its heavy tourism,” he said. “Retail succeeds when you have a lot of people passing by. This building is perhaps Concord Center’s most iconic landmark. So it certainly fits that profile.”
Caffe Nero will occupy half of the street-level space in the building, according to Kadis, and businesses including an architectural firm and graphic design firm have already signed on to second-floor office space. What kind of business claims the other half of the street level remains to be seen.
But in a town dominated by local property owners, the purchase of a landmark building by a larger outside investment company may portend the possibility of future problems for Concord retailers, according to Boynton.
“In order to get an economic return on their investment, they’re going to have to charge rents that are likely far higher than those of most Concord Center properties,” said Boynton, who is a member and past president of the Concord Business Partnership. “Historically, most of Concord Center has been owned by Concord residents. This introduces a new dynamic.”
Two miles down Main Street in West Concord Village, it’s a different story. With almost no empty retail space in evidence, West Concord’s main strip, Commonwealth Avenue, welcomes a busy stream of locals and businesspeople whose loyalties and interests may be different from the day-trippers and tourists more common in Concord Center.
Mary Bilodeau-Klinoff has years of experience with retail in both business districts. For over 30 years she co-owned The Grasshopper Shop in Concord Center with her sister; a few years ago she left to start her own business, Concord Firefly, in West Concord.
Bilodeau-Klinoff pointed out that there’s a trade-off: West Concord doesn’t enjoy the tourism traffic that Concord Center does, but rents are lower as a result. She pays $1,100 a month for her storefront in West Concord; when she left Concord Center, her rent there was more than five times as much.
“West Concord has been on the upswing for years,” said Stephen Irza of the West Concord Advisory Committee. “Slowly and steadily it has improved itself and taken a real sense of pride of place. There is a vibe to West Concord that makes you glad to be there.”
In addition to popular new eateries such as Woods Hill Table, Salt Box Kitchen, and Reasons to be Cheerful, Irza notes that “We even have a cobbler! We will have the Bruce Freeman Trail — construction is now underway. There is genuine excitement when people talk about West Concord.”
Peter Lovis has owned the 50-year-old Concord Cheese Shop in Concord Center for the past 14 years and has seen firsthand the value of tailoring a business’s marketing style to a wide variety of customers.
Not only is his shop known for its magnificent array of cheeses, wines and other gourmet fare; he also regularly offers events that make retail a more interactive experience, such as his yearly Cheese Parade and his current series of evening seminars introducing customers to different ways of serving food and wine.
As executive director of Concord’s Chamber of Commerce, Jane Obbagy has no reason to believe a few empty storefronts will affect the busy fall tourist season, when visitors from all over the world flock to the region’s historical sites, visit Boston-area schools, and take in the foliage.
But she agrees that it’s not an easy time for retail even in a popular destination town. “It’s a changing climate,” Obbagy said. “Business owners have to be innovative. This is definitely a time of change, but I think most of our local businesses will survive. Some have been around for a long time. They know how to weather these storms.”
Boynton concurs, but says it won’t happen without concentrated effort and a proactive approach.
“Retailers are facing some serious headwinds. They are under siege from online commerce and malls,” he said. “I believe we should be conserving Concord’s town center the way we conserve open space. It’s a community asset — like our top-rated schools and historical sites — and I worry people take them for granted. And businesses need to do all they can to provide an excellent experience for patrons and visitors.”