by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
March 23, 2001
FOR MY DOWNTOWN, AN IDEA SO OLD IT'S NEW
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- A few years ago, retail stores around here started dropping like flies.
It was a surprise to most of us, because up to then, Brattleboro had been a pretty lively place. But soon there were 12, 13, 14 and counting - and people made a worried habit of counting - empty storefronts.
Terrified, the town sprung into action. A group of business people formed a new group. They took over a tacky chain pharmacy store - after the chain pulled out - and turned it into a river garden. They took another tacky empty chain donut shop and turned it into a firemen's museum.
With grinding slowness, new stores began to open. Se= veralcoffeehouses. A tattoo parlor or two. Some resale shops. An indoor fleamarket. A bead store. Two Indian import stores. A crafts store. A dollar store. A scented soap store. A bakery. An upscale linen and bedding store.
These businesses joined the stores that had managed to survive - two new and two used bookstores, a few barber shops and hair salons, a shoestore, a fine Army & Navy store, a men's clothing store, two hip women's clothing stores, a florist and a scattering of others. Now Brattleboro, which is the shopping center in my area,has just finished a marketing study to see whatelse it could do.
The consultants decided that the town needed to find new retail stores for four areas: restaurants, clothing and accessories, home furnishings, and gifts and crafts. It needed to expand "downtown nightlife, vibrancy and community events, including more arts, cultural and entertainment activities." And it needed to develop an image as a "fun destination."
And why did it need to do all this? To attract tourists.
It may attract tourists, but it won't attract me.
I have a different vision.
In my mind, I walk down Main Street and see vegetables neatly stacked on stands. I smell the freshly ground coffee from beans piled in sacks. Meat hangs in one window, and fish are stacked on ice in the next.
I pass a store where, in a glassed-in case, 35 kinds of cheese vie for my attention. Next to it is the store with 47 varieties of handmade sausage. I pass by the cobbler, the hardware store, the bike shop, the flower vendor, the kiosk where they sell newspapers and magazines, the tailor, the bakery, the ladies' lingerie store, the haberdasher, the bagel place, the men's hat store full of fedoras, the ladies' hat store full of bugle beads, feathers and net, the Jewish delicatessen.
The streets are full of people and noise - shouting, bargaining, gossiping, conniving, flirting, selling, buying, even stealing.
There isn't a chain store in sight. In my mind, this kind of a Main Street is a place where I have to spend time. Where I look forward to doing my chores. Where I shop almost every day. Where I run into friends and enemies and catch up on the gossip. Where a 15-minute errand turns into a couple of hours downtown, and I don't mind at all.
I'm describing, of course, the Main Street of my youth, where all the services were downtown instead of spread out in strip malls. Where my mother could walk to the shopping avenue, pushing a cart with one hand and holding mine in the other.
Maybe it was the car that killed downtown. Maybe once we all moved out of the centers of our cities and towns, the stores either died or moved out with us.
Because along with the malls came parking spaces, and they're hard to come by in downtown Brattleboro. For a long time, Main Streets everywhere stood empty, silent, abandoned.
Then came the 1980s, and with it "downtown revitalization," craft stores and art galleries and theaters and restaurants and expensive upscale shops, which moved in and pushed out the old hardware stores and 5&10s and the bars that had managed to hold on. Especially in New England, this became the model for the newdowntowns.
That's what the consultants want now for Brattleboro, with its still-intact, Victorian brick-front Main Street. It's what has saved other small towns.
The numbers the consultants have gathered to attract businesses are impressive. Brattleboro's primary market area has 21,700 households with a total population of 54,000 people.
The total annual income in 1999 was $969 million. People here spend $81 million on food at home, $48 million on food away from home, and $35 million on apparel and footwear. But when the consultants interviewed the people around town, many talked wistfully about missing downtown's role as a social center, a place to meet people and catch up on community life. Not too many mentioned going downtown to meet a lot of tourists.
Brattleboro already has some interesting bars, two places that have live music on weekends, a small theater that puts on live performances, quite a few art galleries, and a good movie theater with three screens. A jazz club would be nice.
Night life would be welcome.
But it's the day life of a market center that I miss so much. Outside the United States, go to Europe, South America, Africa - anywhere,and almost every town has a market. Big cities have lots of them.
In the summer, Brattleboro has an outdoor farmer's market that attracts hundreds of people and could serve as the perfect model for what I'm talking about.
I know that what I'm talking about sounds like returning to the past, which is the very definition of conservatism. But maybe my idea is so conservative that it can come 'round the back and bite radicalism on the butt.
We don't need tourists to support our downtowns. We need our downtowns to support our lives.
Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist who writes about culture,politics, economics and travel.