High rents, online shopping jeopardize Brookline ‘mom-and-pops’

Harriet Rosenstein and her dog, Louie, shop for shoes the afternoon of Sept. 12. Photo by Sabrina Schnur / BU News Service

By Sabrina Schnur
BU News Service

Previously published in the Brookline Tab

BROOKLINE — Brookline officials have begun drafting plans to help local businesses remain in Coolidge Corner after store owners said the shuttering of stores — most recently the iconic Downtown Shooz — is a symptom of a larger problem: high rent.

This comes at a time when the city’s own survey estimates that there are millions of dollars of unrealized retail opportunities in the community.

Last year, Brookline’s Economic Development and Long-Term Planning department surveyed Brookline residents on what community issues were most important to them and released the results in a March 2018 report, “Perspectives and Opportunities for Brookline’s Commercial Areas.”

Of the residents surveyed, several expressed concern for “retail viability” and “diversity of businesses,” as well as a need to “reduce commercial rents” and “limit too many chains.” The report highlighted Coolidge Corner because more than 40 percent of businesses in Brookline are concentrated in the area.

“Survey respondents commented on the numerous chain businesses along Harvard Street, which they perceived to result from high rents in the area,” the report said. “Within a ten minute walk of Coolidge Corner, demand exceeds supply by more than $101 million.”

The March 2018 report outlines possible next steps the town might take in order to address residents’ concerns. Among them, rezoning to allow taller buildings and working directly with store owners to “improve local shopping.”

For some local shops, it’s too late.

Mom-and-pops closing

More than 40 years ago Melvin “Mel” Kravitz and a colleague opened a shoe store with a $500 deposit. At the end of September Kravitz prepared to see the store lock up one last time. When customers ask, he explained that the lease is up and the rent is high.

“I wish it stayed open, that’s all I can say,” said Kravitz, now 87. “I like the people. I like the work.”

Downtown Shooz is one of several stores which have faced this fate in recent years.

Harriet Rosenstein and her dog, Louie, live a block away and had visited Kravitz at Downtown Shooz for more than 30 years. Rosenstein shared the feelings of many patrons who came to the store on one September day.

“I think it’s just very sad,” Rosenstein said. “This place from the outside looks wretched, but they have actually some good stuff.”

Meggan Levene, an elected Brookline delegate to the Democratic State Convention, said the store always had what she was looking for — even her ladybug galoshes in adult sizes. Levene pointed to how Downtown Shooz is just one of several small business who have recently closed their doors.

Liz Depczenski, who works at Kabloom, a Boston flower shop with a location next door to Kravitz, said during the past 20 years Coolidge Corner has lost many of the mom-and-pop stores which used to define the neighborhood.

“It’s a shame,” Depczenski said. “Mel’s been here for so long, and he’s such a kind man.”

Depczenski also recalled the closing of Lineage, a local restaurant that closed its doors in 2016 after 10 years on the block. At the time, co-owner Jeremy Sewall said rising rents were part of the reason.

“I think that’s definitely a reason why there’s so many banks here now instead of little mom-and-pop places,” Depczenski said.

Ella Orsatti, an employee at Kabloom for nearly 20 years, said she isn’t worried about the flower shop because the lease has many more years left. But she pointed to how one block on Harvard Street between Babcock and Green Streets has had high turnover largely due to high rents.

“Even Panera didn’t want to pay the rents,” Orsatti said. “Since McDonalds it was a pizza place, it was Friendly’s…”

Ten-year leases

Orsatti said aside from the cost of rent, the length of the lease also plays a role in whether or not a business can stay open. Many leases are 10 years, she said, as opposed to a year-by-year renewal.

“I think when leases are up, it makes business owners sit down and look at what their life is and if they want to renew,” Orsatti said.

Andrea Ferrini, owner of Bottega Fiorentina, said after 26 years at the corner of Harvard Avenue and Babcock Street he’s seen many businesses come and go. Ferrini said having the lease renewed every 10 years is cheaper than trying to get a lease on a new property today.

Ferrini said after five years in the 10-year leases, landlords start discussing renewal. He said this is a way to lock business owners in before their lease expires. Ferrini said he thinks most of the new leases are at least 40 percent higher than his.

The only thing keeping some local shops afloat is loyalty, Ferrini said. When Kravitz opened the shoe store on Harvard Avenue, he said, at least 90 percent of his customers were local residents.

Ferrini said he has seen generations of customers. For instance, many of his customers were students when they first met and now they’re coming back with their children.

“Wow I must be getting old,” he said.

Ferrini said many stores around him also are suffering due to online shopping. He recalled Brookline News and Gifts which had been open since 1963 before the original owner sold it in 2008. Seven years later, Ferrini said, the specialty store closed.

“You can find everything you want online,” Ferrini said. “Thank god you don’t find fresh pasta online.”

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