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Small businesses in Downtown Boston survive economic downturn

Posted by Your Town  October 18, 2012 05:18 PM

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Despite empty storefronts on Washington Street, some small retailers in Downtown Boston have survived the Great Recession that caused many neighboring big businesses to close. “We’re a small specialty store that isn’t as subject to dramatic shifts because we’ve been here for a long time and people who shop here [downtown] know us,” said Fred Rosenthal, owner of specialty retailer Bromfield Pen Shop.

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Rosenthal declined to disclose his store’s profits, but said the business has remained about the same year after year.

“When the economy slows down, it hurts corporate businesses more than small businesses. In this area, a lot of the big businesses have closed in the past few years,” Rosenthal said.

Bromfield Pen Shop, which Rosenthal’s grandfather opened in 1948, started out just selling pens, but Rosenthal has made some changes to stay in business. According to its website, the shop now carries business card cases, watches, a Filofax boutique of planners and “the most complete selection of organizers and refills in Boston.” Rosenthal also periodically sends emails to previous customers to solicit business.

Rosenthal’s store outlasted several large retail chains, such as Filene’s, Filene’s Basement and Borders Bookstore, which closed out of downtown in the past several years.

But now the outlook for downtown appears to be improving. According to the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District Corp., a non-profit organization focused on making Downtown Boston more attractive to people and businesses, 68 new businesses have opened in the past four years and seven new businesses will open by 2013.

Meanwhile, a 1.2 million square foot mixed-use commercial/residential tower will replace the area on Washington that was formerly the site of Filene’s department store. In a document provided to Boston Redevelopment Authority in August by the developer, Millennium Partners, the building will contain 600 residential units and as much as 218,000 square feet of retail space.

One new small business located downtown is even doing well in this economy. Farid Goljamali, who opened a custom-framing store, King Frame, last March on Bromfield Street, said he has already done well.

“People find my website on Google. This is the only frame shop around here, and I keep the prices reasonable,” Goljamali said. According to its website, King Frame offers framing services which include museum quality preservation and canvas stretching.

Still, not all small businesses that survived the economic recession have been faring well. “Business has been O.K. compared to previous years, but tourism is down because the economy is bad and people have less money to spend on luxury items like cameras,” said Steve Centamore, owner of Bromfield Camera Co.

Centamore, whose business experienced about a 10 percent decrease in profits in the past year, has advertised on his shop’s website, through email, in the local papers and on the radio. He said he has also reduced prices in hopes that these efforts will give him an edge over online competition.

Bromfield Camera Co. had been in business for 55 years before Centamore’s father bought it in 1965. Since Centamore took over the business in 1968, it has been through business lulls in the 1970s and 1990s, he said.

Despite his current business troubles, Centamore is optimistic for the future: “The economy is cyclical, and I believe it will turn around. The [recessions in the] 70s and 90s didn’t last as long, but maybe the upside to this one will last longer when it turns around."

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and the Boston University News Service.

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