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Wrong turn on Moody Street

Sluggish foot traffic, lack of cooperation cited as shops close

The owners of the Construction Site plan to maintain a presence online, but the store recently joined the list of casualties on Moody Street in Waltham. The owners of the Construction Site plan to maintain a presence online, but the store recently joined the list of casualties on Moody Street in Waltham. (Globe Staff Photo / Matthew J. Lee)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Stephanie V. Siek
Globe Staff / April 24, 2008

These are awkward times for Moody Street, the main thoroughfare that just a decade ago was hailed as the face of Waltham's rebirth from factory town to hipster suburb.

On April 12, the Construction Site, a children's store that served as one of the street's retail destination points, closed. The wonderland window displays of wooden toys that once greeted shoppers who crossed the bridge over the Charles River into Moody Street's heart are no more. And the Construction Site is not the only independent enterprise to leave the street in recent months.

The past year has also seen the departure of Maxima Gift Center, Harry's Shoe Store, Brickman's Furniture, and Lexington Music Center.

And Back Pages Books, heralded when it opened in 2005 as the city's first bookstore in 15 years, was recently forced to appeal to its patrons to recoup money lost when city permitting delays held up its reopening in a new space for longer than a month.

The loss of the Construction Site and other distinctive retail shops demonstrates a persistent problem on Moody Street - the difficulty in maintaining the kinds of businesses needed for a vibrant commercial strip, one that draws pedestrian crowds, business leaders say.

In interviews, merchants said several factors hamper the street's retail climate: A lack of unity and cooperation among business owners, the absence of an overarching plan for encouraging shopping and business in the downtown area, slow foot traffic during the day, a lack of parking in the evenings, complicated city permitting processes, the loss of large anchor stores such as Jordan's Furniture (which left Moody Street in 2004), and not enough affluent shoppers interested in buying higher-end products.

Owners of the Construction Site and its sister stores - Aisle 9, Zauber Zimmer, and the Rail Yard, which share the same space - did not respond to requests for comment about its departure. However, according to its website, ConstructionToys.com, the business will continue to exist online, and the owners hope to open another bricks-and-mortar store at some point.

Robert Francis, with R.W. Francis & Co., the real estate broker handling the property for the owner, said he had not found another tenant for the 5,589-square-foot space, although he'd fielded several inquiries from aspiring restaurateurs.

"We're asking $20" per square foot for a lease, Francis said. "Do I think it will be another retail space? Probably not. It could be, if we divided it. But my owner is not inclined to divide it."

Michael Tesler, who works with small retailers and start-up businesses as president of a consulting company, Retail Concepts, said the loss of stores on Moody Street has been a gradual process that is just now starting to be apparent to the casual observer.

Tesler, also an adjunct instructor at Bentley College in Waltham, said there's more outside competition for the dining establishments that provide a big draw for Moody Street, including Sel de la Terre in Natick and Blue Ginger in Wellesley. The novelty of Waltham's "Restaurant Row" has worn off, he said, and there aren't enough new businesses to keep potential customers interested.

The street also suffers from a lack of cohesion in its offerings, Tesler said, with mom-and-pop dollar stores and takeout pizza joints alongside Asian fusion restaurants and boutiques selling fine pottery, with little effort to cross-pollinate their clienteles.

"There's a disconnect in terms of target markets. By night, the appeal or thrust of the appeal is a little more sophisticated," drawing diners and shoppers from wealthy communities such as Natick, Wellesley, and Newton, Tesler said. "During the day, there's much more diversity economically and demographically."

But the street's outlook is dire, he said, unless the city gets serious about preserving its retail presence and making it comfortable and trendy enough to keep attracting affluent shoppers. Tesler was blunt about how the suburban customers who flocked to the city's restaurants 10 years ago now view Waltham's nighttime character.

"Moody Street's a little bit intimidating to them," he said. "I am probably the most liberal, left-wing person, and it's not intimidating to me, but I think your average suburban family from Lexington, they're not comfortable on Moody Street. They see that adult bookstore, or a drug deal - it has an inner-city feel to it."

Some merchants would dispute that assessment. There are many examples of retail success, they say, particularly among specialty shops. In particular, they say, the South Asian, Latino, and African grocery and specialty stores on the street have thrived, attracting a steady stream of shoppers who want products that can't be found, or are found only at higher prices, in supermarkets and department stores.

The changing environment of Moody Street has not been the biggest problem for Alex Green, owner of Back Pages Books. Green said his bookstore's recent problems with cash flow aren't due to a lack of enthusiastic clientele. He's been able to attract hundreds of people to readings featuring both local authors and such national names as historian Howard Zinn and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Franz Wright.

Green said the extreme step of asking customers for financial support is one of the hardest things he's ever had to do. But he made the decision to e-mail a plea to the store's 700 to 800 online subscribers because he knew that many of them would be devastated if it closed. He also posted the request on its website, backpagesbooks.com. If customers knew of Back Pages' troubles, he wagered, some would be willing to invest in its future through benefits like a fee-based membership program.

"So why not ask for help? That's what a community means," Green said.

He said delays in receiving the occupancy permits for the store's new location - inside the former Jordan's Furniture building - forced him to remain closed for 36 days last fall. When he finally reopened in late October, his revenue for the month was just $450, he said. The first business quarter of the new year has brought more success, he said, with revenue 46 percent higher than the same time last year, but it is still not enough to keep up with unpaid bills from last fall. He's hoping his appeal to devoted customers will raise the $75,000 needed to keep the store going until September, when textbook season makes it self-sustaining again.

So far, he's brought in some $15,000 in pledges and donations, almost all in membership fees in the customer club he's forming. "That's enough to give us breathing room," he said, adding that he's working on a fund-raiser and other methods to bring in money.

"This location, compared to our old one, is delivering more in the form of higher foot traffic," said Green. "That said, these underlying issues on the street aren't going anywhere fast enough."

Outer Limits, a comic-book store, is enough of a unique draw for its clientele to ride out temporary trends on the street. The store has been at four locations on Moody Street since opening in 1983. Owner Steve Higgins, who moved to a corner of Chestnut Street over the winter, said this is his best year for sales.

"I think Moody Street is a fantastic street if you have the right business," said Higgins. "I think too many of the stores close too early . . . the restaurant customers don't have anywhere to go, except the theater."

Dinny Myerson had the same insight in mind when she decided to keep her shop, Gourmet Pottery, open until 10 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays. The winter holidays also drive shoppers to her store. But she said things haven't been the same since the departure of Jordan's, which attracted loads of people in the mood to spend money.

Maxima Gift Center, which used to occupy a space down the street, experienced such a steep drop in foot traffic after Jordan's left that it was put out of business. Maxima's owner, Brian Phillips, who still owns another branch of the store in Arlington, said that his sales at the Waltham location dropped by half after Jordan's closed. Even the phalanx of evening diners wasn't enough to replace the loss, Phillips said.

"It's the worst place to be, when you're in a place where the people who buy don't come in until the last two hours of the day," he said. Phillips split his time between the two stores, and it was difficult for him to extend his hours in the evening without cutting back on his daytime duties of ordering, stocking, and maintaining a presence for the occasional lunchtime shopper. In talking with his customers, he was frustrated to learn that most weren't from Waltham. "The people who shop there don't live there," he said.

The Waltham West Suburban Chamber of Commerce has no resources specifically directed at Moody Street retailers and few offerings for small businesses in general, said executive director John Peacock, although some Moody Street businesses belong to the chamber and take advantage of the services offered to members.

"We're willing to listen to solutions to growing the economy down there, but we don't have any ideas right now," said Peacock. He said he hopes to gather some at a meeting for downtown business owners on Tuesday, organized by the chamber's Economic Development Committee.

Town Councilor at Large Sarafina "Sally" Collura, who helped organize next week's meeting, owns a tea shop on Moody Street. She said part of the problem is the area's aesthetic - or lack thereof. She cited unpruned trees that obscure signs, random merchandise splayed on the sidewalk in front of some stores, and unstable fruit and vegetable towers outside some of the ethnic groceries.

"I just want it to look a little classier around Moody Street," said Collura. "You have restaurants that have worked hard to have a certain look about them. I've worked hard to have a look for my tea shop."

Collura said that the city, Chamber of Commerce, and landlords also need to attract a wider variety of shops to the street.

"The landlord needs to look beyond another grocery store, another cellphone store, another work-today-get-paid-today kind of business," said Collura. "We need to look beyond the restaurant. . . . We need to have a balance. We need to look at other gift shops, clothing stores, a shoe store, and we need to help them identify a retailer that might be a good fit."

Stephanie V. Siek can be reached via e-mail at ssiek@globe.com.

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, an April 24 story in Globe West about businesses on Moody Street in Waltham incorrectly stated that Lexington Music Center had left the street. Lexington Music Center remains open at 402 Moody St.)

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