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The changing faces of Thayer Street: Local shops struggle to stay afloat

University real estate, global commercial trends contribute to transformation

Lois Hollingsworth owned Zuzu’s Petals, a dress boutique on Thayer Street, for 24 years. But in 2015, she chose to shutter her store because of what she described as a drastic change in Thayer’s character.

“People came to Thayer Street because it was interesting, and it really had something for everybody,” she said. “It was such an eclectic street; it was really and truly a destination.” 

Now home to a Chase Bank and international chains such as Shake Shack and By CHLOE, Thayer Street has shifted away from the unique collection of independent retailers that it once was. A skate shop, record store, comic book shop and a small grocery store used to be staples on the street, recalled Ann Dusseault, owner of Pie In The Sky, a gift shop that has been open on Thayer for 26 years.

Before Thayer’s original Baja’s Taqueria opened its doors in 2008, its space was home to Spike’s Junkyard Dogs, a cheap hot dog place which had walls covered with Polaroids of customers who had completed its six hot dog challenge. There was also College Hill Bookstore, a more affordable alternative to the Brown Bookstore that closed in 2004, and Thayer Street Market, CVS’ predecessor at 291 Thayer. Just over last summer, Tealuxe, The Threading Place, Denali and GNC Live Well all closed.

“It was more of a balance, years ago,” Dusseault said of the street. “Mostly it’s gone from retail to food.”

There are several factors that have contributed to Thayer’s shift over the last decade. The University has significant say in the direction of Thayer, as it owns a number of properties on the street such as the former location of Denali — now awaiting a new tenent — and the buildings inhabited by Insomnia Cookies, Berk’s Shoes & Clothing, Blue State Coffee, Salon Persia and the Brown Bookstore. The properties owned by the University that are used primarily for non-educational purposes are listed under a Brown-owned real estate subsidiary company called Farview, Inc. While some University-owned buildings, like the one that houses the Bookstore, have been occupied by the same tenant for over a decade, other business, like Insomnia, have joined the street more recently.

According to John Luipold, the vice president of real estate and strategic initiatives at the University, the University purchases property on Thayer for both academic and commercial purposes.

“We could redevelop (a building) into something that supports the University’s strategic mission,” Luipold said, citing the Brown Bookstore as an example. The University also wants “to be able to help influence the kind of retail that’s on Thayer Street,” he added.

Luipold said that in 2012 and 2013, for example, “there were some challenges with some bar activity on Thayer Street.” He said that the University wanted to limit the number of establishments on the street that were primarily focused on serving alcohol. Thayer “is a gateway for visitors to Brown, prospective students to Brown, parents of students and our students,” he said. “We want to make sure that it is, as best possible, something that supports the community.” English Cellar Alehouse was one of the popular bars students and other community members frequented during that time.

Although a challenge, Luipold stressed that attracting and retaining tenants that are good fits for Thayer is a priority for the University. “It would be easy to just make a deal with anybody,” he said. “But we really want to try and attract tenants that fit into the community in some way, that either the students would like or would attract people from the broader community.”

Luipold added that food establishments tend to be more willing and able to pay a high price for real estate on Thayer.

“Retailers, primarily food retailers, really like Thayer Street,” he said. “That can drive up the value of properties because many tenants are willing to pay a lot of money to be a tenant in a building.”

In addition to shifting priorities for the University, global changes in consumption have contributed to a more chain-based Thayer Street.

“If we want to support small business, instead of doing the click-click on the computer, throw on some clothes, run down to the store, and support family operations,” said Ken Dulgarian, owner of the Avon Cinema which has survived on Thayer since 1938.

Not everyone is satisfied with Thayer’s new direction.

“It’s sad, because we thought we would always, always be on Thayer Street,” Hollingsworth said. “It might seem like a fun student street, but it’s nothing like it was.” She added that the installation of new parking meters on Thayer was the “final straw” before she decided to close her Thayer Street storefront, citing customer complaints about parking costs.

Former Thayer Street store owners Chris and Jennifer Daltry expressed similar views. When the Daltrys moved their business, What Cheer Records and Vintage, to Thayer in June of 2012, “there was a lot of optimism; there were still enough little independent places on the street,” Jennifer Daltry said.

But the Daltrys soon began to notice more shops closing and more restaurants appearing. Like Hollingsworth, the Daltrys added that people were starting to complain about the parking. “We started to notice that these changes, these negative changes, were having an impact on our business,” Jennifer Daltry said. “We were facing, even if we could stay, a significant rent increase, and we couldn’t make those numbers work.” What Cheer closed in May 2017.

For those who remain on the street, maintaining their businesses has been a challenge. Jesse Berman, owner of the Army Navy Surplus Store, has maintained a storefront on Thayer since 1981 and owned the property since 2000. While his ownership of the building has allowed him to continue operating without concern over prices of rent, he said that high landlord turnover in the area has affected many of his neighbors.

Dusseault added that the landlord turnover can be attributed to the original owners selling or passing away, and new landlords taking over who are not local to Providence. “It’s not a personal thing. It’s just all business, so they buy the building and immediately double the rent so that any indies couldn’t possibly stay,” she said.

Chris Daltry agreed. “This used to be a shopping district, and now it’s an eating district,” he said.


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