A stroll along Newbury Street can in some ways feel timeless: The meandering crowds of international tourists and the well-heeled mingling with coeds, seniors, dog walkers, and window shoppers. Other than the clothes people are wearing, that much hasn’t changed over the years. But the mix of shops along the upscale row has, and not all of the changes have been for the better. The comings and goings on Newbury Street — and increasing retail competition from now-hipper parts of town — have blurred the image of a shopping district that once defined upscale retail in Boston.
That has prompted a trio of young women with a vested interest in the business district’s future to mobilize in an attempt to make it relevant to a new generation of shoppers. Two of them technically are competitors: Erica Aylward, 32, works for Jamestown Urban Management, a real estate firm which leases a large swath of Newbury Street properties it owns; while Christina Attaway, 28, is an employee of UrbanMeritage, a real estate investment firm that owns 14 buildings along the street. They've teamed up with Amanda Tassinari Hamedany, 29, the marketing and membership director at the Back Bay Association, in an effort they’ve dubbed the Newbury Street Marketing Collaborative. What started as a website in 2016 — newburystboston.com — has evolved into a grassroots effort to connect and promote Newbury’s businesses.
Meg Mainzer-Cohen, who works with Hamedany as the head of the Back Bay Association, said that while the BBA does its part to promote the entire neighborhood, Newbury Street has remained a complicated challenge to publicize from end-to-end because its stores are owned by a constellation of landlords. “If you’re Copley Place you have a marketing team, and so does the Prudential Center,” she says.
Aylward, Attaway, and Hamedany make it a habit to wander up and down Newbury to check in on stores, find out about events, and make connections between companies. The trio played a big hand in having more retailers take part in the Open Newbury Street events last year, and just hosted their own event in November at the Taj Hotel, bringing together store managers from along the street for a chance to mingle and discuss neighborhood affairs. Their work has led to cross pollination of store events, like a recent collaboration between the women’s clothing brand Of Mercer (which leases space from Jamestown) and the menswear brand State and Liberty (which has a lease with UrbanMeritage).
“Our store manager has been working with the Collaborative since November and it’s really provided great support for us locally,” says Allyson Lewis, chief executive of Tie Bar, a Chicago-based men’s accessories shop that opened a permanent storefront on the street last year. “We've already seen several partnerships and events planned in result and are looking forward to more throughout the course of this year.”
Aylward, Attaway, and Hamedany insist Newbury Street is as vibrant and important to the city as it’s ever been.
“The big misconception about the street that it’s all about the first block, but it’s a mile long and it is accessible and fun and there are lots of new brands,” says Hamedany, “It’s not just for the very wealthy or the very old.”
“The core customers here are millennials,” says Aylward.
“So in a way,” Attaway adds, “we’re marketing to ourselves.”
A Pret a Manger unexpectedly closes
Where did the quinoa bowls go? The popular Pret A Manger sandwich shop on the corner of State and Washington streets abruptly closed last week. Breakfast and lunchtime regulars who bothered to look up before pulling on the locked glass doors were greeted by a curt message: “This shop has closed. Thank you for your loyal patronage.”
Pret, a fast-casual sandwich chain headquartered in London, offered little explanation behind the abrupt closure in a statement.
“Regarding the downtown shop, we’ve decided to focus our resources on our six other Pret shops in Boston,” the company said.
John E. Geraghty, the manager of the limited liability company listed as owning the State Street building that housed the restaurant, did not return calls for comment.
While it’s odd to see a restaurant shut down in a location teeming with foot traffic from office workers and tourists, other forces are likely at play. The Washington Street area is one of a couple of corridors in the city, including Newbury Street and Seaport Boulevard, that command premium commercial lease rates of at least $100 per square foot, says Aaron Jodka, director of research for real estate firm Colliers International in Boston.
Several doors down from the Pret location on Washington Street, a Subway sandwich shop also recently moved out.
“It’s possible that the rent is causing some of these tenants to reevaluate their locations,” Jodka says.
Also not to be discounted is the ongoing development throughout Downtown Crossing that’s prompting some landlords to rebrand their properties by attracting a different type of tenant, Jodka says. The corner of Milk and Washington streets, for instance, is undergoing a “major transformation,” specifically the property that used to house girls’ accessories retailer Claire’s, now under renovation and in the process of rebranding.
And around the corner, Colliers is handling the leasing for the landmark 399 Washington St., the former Barnes and Noble bookstore location now dubbed DTX 399. It’s sat empty for more than a decade but Jodka says there’s been “very strong interest from retailers.”
As far as the former Pret location on Washington and State streets, Jodka says there should be plenty of interest from potential tenants given its prime spot and foot traffic.
“It’s supply and demand — find the right tenant and the right rent,” he says. “There’s a constant churn in the retail world.”
For regulars of the closed Pret a Manger who are having baguette sandwich withdrawals, the Post Office Square location is only a third of a mile away.
Quilts fit to a T
Most e-commerce startups looking to break into brick-and-mortar like to do so with a splashy address that can act as a billboard for the brand. But Project Repat has never been a typical startup.
The company started in 2011 with “the smartest or dumbest idea ever,” says Nathan Rothstein, who co-founded it with his friend Ross Lohr, who was living in Nairobi, at the time. Lohr had learned that a vast amount of cast-off clothing donations from the United States were making their way into the African city’s markets. His idea was to create an economic opportunity for Kenyans by having them make bags from the T-shirt fabric and then “repatriate” the items back to America.
It turned out that shoppers weren’t that interested in having recycled products. Instead, they kept asking the duo for a way to reuse the clothing they already had. Specifically, they wanted someone to make quilts out of their old T-shirts.
“There was a cottage industry of people making them out of their home or on Etsy,” Rothstein says. So they attempted to formalize it, partnering with manufacturing facilities in Fall River and North Carolina to mass-produce T-shirt quilts.
The team now has a team of 75 people sewing quilts, which range in price from $75 for a lap blanket to $290 for a king-size. The company has produced more than 200,000 quilts, and Rothstein says it generated $7 million in sales last year, driven primarily through Facebook and Google ads.
Those numbers prompted Project Repat to open its first storefront, at 298 Walnut St. in Newtonville last week.
Why choose a relatively suburban location for their store? The answer is simple: moms, Rothstein says. They’re the ones looking to clean out closets and find a new use for their kids’ collection of Metallica T-shirts or their husbands’ many road race souvenirs.