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On Bromfield Street lives the past, present, and future of downtown Boston

Bromfield Street on a recent weekday afternoon. The avenue can be used as a barometer of the central business district’s post-COVID recovery — slow and surely there, but discouraging all the same.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

In a sea of baseballs cards, Jayson Tatum posters, and dollar bills from foreign lands, Andy Papertsian stands as a reminder of the Bromfield Street long gone.

He bought Bay State Coin Co. in 1983 among a strip of niche hobby businesses downtown, the place to go to buy fountain pens, mend watches, or acquire rare currency. Today, customers meander into his crowded corner shop to examine $7 military medals and touch fading Boston Pride pins, 50 cents apiece. Business is steady, but not robust, and a handful of people come in just to reminisce about childhood visits.

“If I had a nickel for every time someone told me they came here as a kid,” Papertsian said. “You know how it goes.”

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But the spirit of Bromfield — its heart — is gone, many say.

What was once a quintessential Boston thoroughfare has fallen victim to “the devolution of business,” as Papertsian called it, accelerated by a pandemic that slowed foot traffic in downtown Boston to a trickle for months. The west side of Bromfield, closer to Boston Common, is now a wasteland of empty storefronts, just plywood and Home Depot buckets of debris visible through the windows. Posted on a dim mid-rise is a notice from Eversource about an unpaid electric bill for $1,127. One whole block lays silent in anticipation of a proposed 22-story office tower, now undergoing city review.

Though just a tenth of a mile long, Bromfield can be seen as a barometer of the central business district’s post-COVID recovery — slow and surely there, but discouraging all the same.

The front window of King Frame on Bromfield Street, where foot traffic remains well below pre-pandemic levels.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

There is good among the bad in Downtown Crossing: Anchor retailers, including Macy’s and Primark, survived the lows of COVID, though the Ireland-based retailer has pared back from four to two stories of its building. Protesters march frequently here for racial equity or climate justice, amid a growing crop of buskers and white-collar workers in starched button-downs. On sunny afternoons, it’s almost impossible to find a seat at Caffé Nero on Summer Street. (Tourists, charting their path on the Freedom Trail, seemingly always get there first — lattes and breakfast rolls in hand.) Mayor Michelle Wu is also luring 9-to-5 employees back with a months-long outdoor programming plan featuring live music and free Dunkin’.

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Overall, foot traffic downtown is up from 2020 at 14 traffic sensors, though “not yet on par with the 2019 rush,“ said Anita Lauricella, a senior planner at the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District.

The same can’t be said for Bromfield.

These days, the narrow street cutting between the Granary Burying Ground and Washington Street feels moribund. The Museum Of Bad Art recently took over a lifeless window and installed a temporary exhibit “to channel positive energy,” said acting director Louis Reilly Sacco. But on a recent Tuesday, the energy was sparse. A few passersby walked through: a man with a pack of toilet paper, two women pushing strollers, another harried on a conference call.

A teenager swerved down on a skateboard: Are you often on Bromfield? a reporter asked. “Only to go somewhere else,” he answered.

Put gently, “Bromfield is a street in transition,” Lauricella added. “Good bones, on the cusp of great things.”

Bromfield Pen Shop employee Jennifer Pozark was less diplomatic. “It is a shadow of its former self.”

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That former self oozes Old World charm. A hulking metal gate midway through Bromfield “reflects the Egyptian Revival entrance” at the nearby cemetery, according to a Bostonian Society sign, and the brown-toned buildings are among the last left in the Granite architectural style. Archived photos show a swath of long-gone shops: tailors, shoe repairmen, The Watch Hospital.

The original Bromfield Pen Shop in the 1950s. It specialized in fountain pens and inks, often sold to large office supply dealers.Tlumacki, John Globe Staff

It was an avenue so admired by longtime city planner Edward Logue that when he first saw plans for the Seaport, he asked, “Where is Bromfield Street?”

Now, much of the allure has faded. Bromfield Camera owner Steve Centamore quietly closed his shop earlier in the pandemic, and the decades-old pen business changed hands from Fred Rosenthal to Netherlands-based firm Appelboom in 2021. King Frame powered through the lockdown in the husk of an otherwise vacant building, on a thinning stream of customers looking to hang diplomas and posters.

“We look around us,” said Zara Yah, who runs the custom framing business with her husband. “We see nothing.”

Lou Chorney echoed that story. The owner of Colonial Trading Co. rents five floors at 41 Bromfield St., with an aim to sublet space on the empty upper levels. The Money Museum on the second floor is a passion project of his, packed with 2,700 years of history, though not a huge moneymaker. It offers occasional private tours for a suggested $250 group donation.

He sells the majority of his inventory of valuables — ancient Athenian coins, rare brooches, and signed Red Sox baseballs — online. Even then, the 50 to 70 percent dip in foot traffic, Chorney estimated, hurts sales.

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Owner Lou Chorney arranges watches for sale in the front window display case of his Colonial Trading Company on Bromfield Street. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

“I don’t need this space one iota to do internet business,” he said of Colonial Trading Co. “I just like having somewhere people can walk in, browse the shelves, ask questions.”

Among Bromfield’s biggest losses — literally — is Marliave, the historic French-Italian haunt that seated 300 people on its busiest Saturdays. It was a restaurant, cocktail bar, and rooftop garden bundled together, with over 50 employees and a $7,000 monthly electric bill — “the pride of Bromfield” since its inception in the 1800s, according to former owner Scott Herritt. When Marliave shuttered in March 2020 and never reopened, the street lost something central to its existence.

“The whole feel of Boston isn’t the same,” added Heritt, a “city rat” who left Boston during COVID for Dover, after 30 years. “People used to walk a little faster.”

Perhaps, in an ideal world, Herritt says, he could revive Marliave and sustain the spot again on crowds looking for a bite before shows at the Orpheum Theatre. But it’s unlikely — and for now, financially impossible. The labor shortage means workers are difficult to find; the rent is too high.

“In another life,” he hopes. He dreams.

Versus, a video game arcade and restaurant on the intersection of Bromfield and Province Streets, has began to see a resurgence of office employees after 5 p.m.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Others, though, have fared better. Lines at Insomnia Cookie often spill out the door in the early evenings; Bromfield Jewelers is flying high, thanks to a bevy of loyal patrons; and the Silvertone Bar & Grill — complete with its backroom dance floor — is opening bar tabs again after a long COVID closure. Versus, the video arcade with pub grub on the corner of Bromfield and Province Streets, has blossomed, too, hosting spontaneous get-togethers for coworkers on a hybrid return-to-office schedule.

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“The best feeling is you open the doors and suddenly four people are playing Mario Kart and ordering a pitcher of cider,” said general manager Mike Hagan. “I see some of my customers more than I see my wife.”

But the damage to Bromfield cannot be brushed away. In addition to a smattering of retail space, floors of offices — which pre-pandemic, housed burgeoning tech startups — sit empty. Some blame the city; some blame the crime. Police have stepped up patrols after several incidents downtown, including one where a female juvenile allegedly brandished a knife and lunged at a witness at Silvertone.

Others blame developers. Most of the street is owned by five landlords, including 30,000 square feet in the hands of CRE Brokerage and the block owned by Midwood Investment & Development, which has long planned a tower at the intersection of Bromfield and Washington Streets.

Painters worked on the wall in the former location of the Nest Salon at 53 Bromfield St.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Its current iteration would include nearly two dozen floors of offices, an outdoor terrace, and retail on the lower levels — development that could change the feel of Bromfield forever. But Midwood chief executive John Usdan argues it would bring new life, too, not to mention 1,700 office workers.

“It’s good for safety, security, the overall environment,” he said.

The merits of the proposal aside, another longtime Bromfield landlord agrees with Usdan’s prescription for what ails their street, and the neighborhood as a whole: A lack of people. Ron Druker, a third-generation building owner with The Druker Company, said “intelligent, fair landlords” are doing what they can to support downtown in tough times.

“We have treated all our tenants appropriately. We’ve subsidized them,” he added. “The real answer is to get people back into the offices.”

Bromfield Street has more than a dozen empty storefronts. Some businesses and residents blame the landlords and the city for not keeping the street lively. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com.Follow her on Twitter @ditikohli_.