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Thayer businesses come and go as trends, students pass through

A site for youth revelry, Thayer has developed a reciprocal relationship with Brown students

As community members have always shared a unique symbiotic relationship with Thayer Street stores and restaurants, students and alums have been well-positioned to witness Thayer’s shift from an area dominated by mom-and-pop shops to a more restaurant-based, nightlife-oriented hub.


A historic avenue

During the 1960s, Thayer was a fundamental component of campus life, providing a venue for the women of Pembroke College and the men of Brown to hang out and find entertainment.

The street was “the heart of Brown,” said Jeffrey Alcorn ’66 P’97.

Located on the corner of Thayer and Cushing streets was the Thayer Street Market. Further down the road were several family-owned shops, laundromats, barbershops and the Brown Bookstore. The street featured record shops, sporting good stores, a McDonald’s and the Rhode Island Hospital Trust Company.

“I used to cash my checks for the weekend for about $10 at the bank on a Friday afternoon,” Alcorn said. “That was enough money for a weekend, including all kinds of activities. Those were the days.”

Brown began to admit women and merged with Pembroke in 1971. During the ’60s, the young ladies of Pembroke College and young men of Brown shared classes but did not share eating facilities or residence halls.

“On Thayer Street, in front of Hegeman (Hall), was the first conversation I exchanged with my soon-to-be wife,” Alcorn reminisced. “She was a Pembroke graduate of the class of ’68. It was a chance encounter.” In his enthusiasm to see his crush, he accidentally called her the wrong name.

On weekends, Thayer became a meeting ground for Brown men and local women interested in meeting people from Brown and “participating in the weekend activities,” Alcorn said.

Thayer’s location between the two campuses allowed for history to be made, Alcorn said, citing his participation in a 1963 Pembroke campus “riot.” More “a celebration of spring” than “a riot,” Alcorn recounted Brown men invading Pembroke dormitories en masse.

“This was what was generally referred to as a panty raid,” Alcorn said, adding that both Providence and University police officers responded to quiet down the event. “There was no destruction of property. It was kids having a great time. … Thayer Street was one of the avenues that made it possible.”


Aging stores 

After the University became coed, Thayer’s prominence was dulled by its old-fashioned vibe.

During the mid-70s, Thayer Street’s older mom-and-pop stores became outdated, said Celia Carboni ’76. Several shops that suited the 1960s seemed out of place as the death of the hippie era brought changes to cultural norms.

“It wasn’t a dump, but it wasn’t a fun place with all these amazing food stores and clothing stores and so on, either,” Carboni said. “It was kind of a holdover from the late ’50s. There was a weird disconnect.”

During the early 1980s, Thayer was  mostly filled with retail stores and had significantly fewer restaurants than it does today, said Jesse Berman, owner of Army and Navy Plus and Shades Plus.

“There was a jeweler, a cobbler, a photo-mat, a hardware store next door, a Subway’s, a fine women’s store,” Berman said. “Next door was the barber shop, the liquor store, an Incredible Edibles — which was a candy store — and the next corner was the IHOP.” Berman added that his current store location was formerly a Baskin-Robbins.


Thayer dinosaurs

Several Thayer businesses have endured across decades.

Spectrum India, owned by Jagdish Sachdev, has been open for 47 years, and the Avon Theater, which opened in 1938, has served as a recreational fixture for students from the 1960s and beyond.

“The fondest memory I have on Thayer Street is all of us verging on the Avon during graduation week,” said John Auerbach ’80. The theater was playing “The Graduate,” and “it seemed as if my whole entire class was there,” he said.

The Avon’s tendency to play older movies, along with art films and documentaries, has made the theater unique compared to the one at the Providence Place Mall, which generally plays more mainstream movies.

Pie in the Sky owner Ann Dusseault has also succeeded in keeping her doors open for many years, despite difficulties with rent and morphing competition on Thayer over the past 20 years, she said.


Rise of food 

Several restaurants, such as Andreas and Spats, have also managed to endure the test of time on Thayer, though their locations have changed over the course of the street’s history.

Spats, a restaurant and pub on Angell Street, was previously located where the Viva and Paragon restaurants now reside. Because the legal drinking age was 18 in the ’80s, Spats was a particularly popular spot for students, said Linda Blinn ’85.

Blinn, who worked part-time at Berk’s Shoes and Clothing Store, attested to the popularity of Store 24, a convenience store previously in the empty storefront that recently housed Tedeschi’s. Steve’s Ice cream and Incredible Edibles used to offer their Thayer patrons a variety of treats.

“When we looked at the menu and saw the (Sharpe Refectory) had casserole, we took a pass and went to Steve’s instead,” Blinn said.

Another popular ice cream shop that still resides on Thayer is Ben and Jerry’s, which had its grand opening in the winter of 1983.

There were also several pizzerias, including a Domino’s, which was not yet a well-known franchise.

“That was one of the first chains (on Thayer) but it didn’t seem like a chain since it wasn’t on every corner yet. It was sort of a new thing,” Alperin said.

Students also frequented the Thayer Street Market, located at 291 Thayer Street in CVS Pharmacy’s current location. Similar in style to the family-owned shops of the time, the market offered a small selection of grocery items for students who could not make the trip to larger grocery stores.

“One time I was a couple of bucks short and I was mortified,” Alperin said, recalling checking out his groceries at Thayer Market during the late ’70s. “I started putting things back, and (the cashier) said ‘No, no, no — just bring me the money another time.’ They knew you were a student. You were going to be buying things from them for years.”

The fleeting

Though places like the Avon, Pie in the Sky and Spectrum India have had significant histories on Thayer, many shops have come and gone, particularly stores that became outdated with new technology.

Record shops were prevalent on Thayer until the mid-90s, along with alternative bookstores. As late as 1993, three record shops existed on Thayer, Dusseault said. Record shops adjusted to changing music tastes over the decades but remained popular until the advent of the Internet.

From 1976 to 1980, “this was the period of the punk new wave explosion,” Auerbach said.

“Musical taste changed dramatically over the course of (my) four years,” she said. “It was part of the culture.”

A popular alternative to the Brown Bookstore was College Hill Books, which provided students with used books at affordable prices.

“What we were spending on books back then is what you guys spend for one book nowadays,” Alperin said.

During the ’90s, Thayer had several flower shops and record stores, Dusseault said, all of which thrived through students and residents in the neighboring area.

But the struggle of managing increasing rent prices caused several smaller businesses to go under.

“Every time a small place closes, it gets eaten up by a restaurant,” Dusseault said, citing the recent demise of Details, a small accessories store, at the hands of an expanding Shark Bar and Grille. “Twenty years ago when we opened, it was a different climate. Smaller shops would get things that you hadn’t often seen, whereas now everything is on the computer,” she added.


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