Features

Rebirth centered on Westminster Street

By
Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 24, 2012
This article is part of the series On the Rhode

This article is part of the occasional “On the Rhode” series.

 

Where Manhattan meets Providence, teenaged boys wearing beanies steer their skateboards between suit-clad businessmen talking on cellphones and hipster couples chain-smoking cigarettes. Just a block away from Kennedy Plaza, Westminster Street is  home to an eclectic spread of small businesses specializing in clothes and accessories. This recent revitalization has earned it the description as “the hippest street in the hippest ‘hood in the hippest city,” by a user of the customer-based review website Yelp. 

 

Wonderland of colors and crafts 

Walking into Craftland is a little like walking into a kaleidoscopic candy store – if the candies were handcrafted goods made by individual artisans. A rainbow of bright colors in the windows beckons customers to check out postcards featuring artistic maps of Rhode Island, zipper necklaces with stunning glass pendants and dozens of other goodies.

Craftland appeared in 2002 as an itinerant pop-up store for the holiday season. The store, which relied on donated spaces, opened the day after Thanksgiving and closed the day before Christmas. In return for complimentary spaces, the owners would contribute to art-related nonprofits. 

“It was never a ‘business’ business,” said Margaret Carleton, one of the three current owners. Rather, Craftland grew out of a desire to bring together talented local artists in order to sell their goods. 

They kept this model going until 2010, when the store’s current landlord – then just a benefactor – gave the owners a deal for the space they had been using for the past eight seasons. Their landlord saw it as part of an ongoing effort to resuscitate the abandoned storefronts.

The store appears to eschew mass-manufactured wares and instead opts to supply distinctive and unusual merchandise. Carleton estimates that about half the stock comes from local artists. Jewelry in particular is a popular draw.

Kayla Stormont ’13 said she appreciated the fact that most of the goods have a local theme. But though they are nice for gifts, “they’re not super practical just for daily use,” which is why she has not yet purchased anything at the store, she added. 

Every month, the store has a rotating gallery show that consistently attracts reviewers’ acclaim. The owners originally thought the gallery would attract shoppers, but in fact, funds from the store are used to subsidize the gallery.

The holidays are still a special time for Craftland when the store area spills over into the gallery area to feature artists from Australia and Indonesia.

“It’s not the easiest climate, but it’s a great community,” Carleton said. 

 

A flush of the heart 

Karen Beebe started Queen of Hearts on Union Street six years ago, with a partner who has since left the venture after being unable to commit to the struggling small business. Beebe worked odd jobs to support herself during the rough beginning and still has a bartending job on the side.

Queen of Hearts moved into its current Westminster spot in 2009 and Beebe took over the adjacent venue for another store, Modern Love, in 2010.

Before starting up the two shops, Beebe ran pop-up shops in empty retail spaces. She started the businesses to sell her own clothing line, which has been displayed in shows from Los Angeles to London. She still keeps her sewing machines in the back for when she has spare time – rare occasions, she said, as the growth of the stores has meant an increase in her managerial responsibilities.

Like Craftland down the street, Queen of Hearts supports local artists and also offers one-of-a-kind clothing. At its inception, the store sold exclusively handmade items, but as it expanded its stock, it became more difficult to carry items in enough sizes and it expanded to sell more wholesale products as well. 

Meanwhile, Modern Love focuses on shoes and accessories. The aesthetic was originally “very clean lines, and everything was white tables,” but it was renovated last January to suit Beebe’s personal aesthetic, which she said is not sleek and modern. Given the huge inventory and investment shoe stores require, Beebe said, she figured “we might as well have the most creative space and the most fun space.” 

“We’re kind of known for having statement shoes and not always functional shoes,” she added. That said, quality is important, and employees have to wear their merchandise all day.

There is a doorway between the two stores to allow customers to drift between them to mix and match clothing and shoes, and they both have the common theme of love in their names. Most of the employees shift between both locations.

Beebe said the stores draw everyone from people staying in nearby hotels to women who work in the area to college students. The store appeals to college girls who are going for a unique look, Beebe said. She noted that because the universities in the area each attract a different demographic, it isn’t too hard for her to identify what college a customer is from. RISD students, for example, “might have a little more personal style.” But she said she believes the store has something for everyone.

“It’s sort of embarrassing how much I’ve gotten (at Queen of Hearts),” Maggie Hire ’15 said. She discovered it as a Summer@Brown student and continued to shop there because of the off-the-beaten-path feel. One of her recent purchases there is a necklace of two fawns kissing. “It’s really ridiculous and over the top, and I love it,” she said. 

Drew Weitman ’15 said she liked the accessories and “kitschy jewelry” that is both “awesome and weird.” But she added that she found the store to be prohibitively expensive.

 

From paved paradise to creative capital

“It’s kind of an odd mix” of shops along Westminster Street, Carleton said. The heart of Westminster is concentrated between Dorrance and Union streets, and it spans about a block-and-a-half. Outside the hub are banks and chains such as Au Bon Pain and CVS.

Carleton said she thinks the stores all complement each other in an “arty” way with a “nice density of stuff.”

This is a deliberate move on the part of the proprietor, Buff Chace at Cornish Associates, who works with fledgling enterprises to weave affordable residences with work spaces and entertainment “within the same fabric,” said Joanna Levitt, director of retail leasing and marketing for Cornish. 

Chace said efforts to succe
ssfully reinvigorate the city “had to start in the heart of it,” where Westminster is located. The shops on the block used to be booming department stores in the early 1900s. But by the ’70s, most stores had shuttered their windows, and the area was deserted. For the past 20 years, he has worked to make it a “more community-based, more creative” center in downtown Providence.

“I’ve watched the street go up and down,” said Beebe, whose store has been located on Westminster for six years. She estimates that she is one of its longest current tenants. Breaking down big, department store-sized spaces to be more manageable for small business owners “has also been key” to the success of the district, she added. Modern Love and Queen of Hearts used to be one big store, but since that store was split in half, it was financially feasible to move in, one store at a time. 

When Carleton first brought Craftland here, the riverfront was a parking lot. “They paved – literally paved over the river – and made a parking lot. It was kind of horrifying,” she remembered. The end of the street “was pretty derelict,” and the once-glorious buildings had faded into obsolescence.

Carleton said Rhode Islanders have “a pretty jaded view of downtown.” Sometimes she reads the comments in the editorial section of the Providence Journal where people denigrate the area, claiming it offers little more than “junkies and crack,” she said.

“It’s a mindset that’s hard to understand, but it’s very Rhode Island,” Carleton added. She said she is excited about the revitalization efforts, which have been partly aided by the number of education establishments that have moved into the area.

Chace pointed to Manhattan and Philadelphia as models for Providence. He said New Haven should be a cautionary tale for educational institutions that neglect their surroundings, noting that only once Yale invested in the city did it flourish. Providence has “sort of (been) in the same boat,” he said.

Chace is currently developing the Biltmore Garage. Levitt said it was a waste to use the first floor of such a prime commercial space for parking, and so Cornish is converting the lot into six new spaces. So far leases have been signed to open a French bakery by the owners of Gracie’s called Ellie’s and a small, all wood-fire restaurant called Figidini.

Chace said he hopes these expansion projects will keep bringing more jobs and customers to the area. 

“It attracts energy,” he said. “People had sort of given up on that.”

  • Anonymous

    Westminster Street sounds like a must- go- right- now exciting place!