Brookline has a number of hurdles to overcome if it wants to see a true and lasting revitalization, and the most important blame falls squarely on the businesses and citizens of the neighborhood.
We could talk about parking and taxes and roads all we like, but let's face it--these are things that are really out of our hands as Brookline residents. We make our feelings known to the city council and to our state government, and we have to live with what they give us, until next election when, if they haven't given us enough, we can vote them out (though Western PA's Demoractic choke hold for the past century plus makes it difficult to effect real change at the governmental level). So let's focus on what we can change.
I was out with my wife yesterday on our way to drop off some paperwork for her job. Along the way we stopped on the Boulevard to grab a cuppa at Cannon Coffee. We parked, as it happened, right outside of the new Isis Cafe, located where Brookline Produce once was. I looked at the business and my heart sank to see a brightly flashing "OPEN" sign in the window...but not a soul inside.
Seriously. Not a soul. Not a single person sitting at a table.
That's a near-death-sentence for a new business.
Now, one could argue that part of the issue is that the Isis Cafe still has the gigantic "Brookline Produce" sign hanging in front of it instead of a nice, big "Isis Cafe" sign, and I'm sure that's part of the issue. But it got me thinking that there are some bigger issues at hand in Brookline that absolutely have to be addressed before we can enjoy the revitalization that we'd all love to see.
Firstly, the businesses need to start taking responsibility for their own success. What I mean by this are things like advertizing, visible signage, and most importantly of all, real hours. The Isis Cafe needs to get rid of that Brookline Produce sign and replace it with a sign for their current business so people actually see they're there. And now many businesses along Brookline Boulevard are only open from 10-5, Monday through Friday? How do you expect to have a thriving retail or service business if your only hours of operation are while everyone in the city is at work and can't patronize you?
A shop or service business should be open until at least 7 or 8 PM--that's just rote and should be accepted as common knowledge. Some businesses should be open later. My friends and I would spend a great deal of time at Cannon Coffee if they were open until 10 instead of 8.
Advertizing is a trickier issue. Commercials on TV cost a lot of money, and advertizements in local newspapers are almost passé these days--it's arguable how much publicity that would generate. Yet even still, businesses absolutely must take the initiative to get the word. Flyers and menus are great options--Pizza establishments have been operating that way for years. But you need a "street team" of people willing to hit the bricks and deliver said flyers door to door. Stick them in mailboxes or roll them up and put them in the handles of screen doors. Sometimes old-school ways still work. Word of mouth is all well and good, but you need to attract an initial audience before you can get word of mouth. Did anyone know that Isis Cafe has a sampler special on Saturdays where you get to taste a large variety of things on their menu at a very affordable price? Probably not, because a lot of people don't even know they're there yet, let alone that great deal. I'm not giving details because I want people to contact Isis directly to ask about it.
And no, I have no affiliation with them. I'm just kind of picking on them and using them as an example, because they're the new kid on the block, and it was noticing their emptiness that inspired this blog. Also, I would really like to see a new business on the Boulevard succeed.
The use of these storefronts is another issue that springs to mind. It's great that we have a few of our city and state reps right up on the Boulevard with office space in our neighborhood, but really, how many people walk in there on a daily basis to talk to Natalya Rudiak, and how much space does she really need? Said space could be rented out to a new business that would actually improve the local economy. Now I'm not saying that our representatives should move out, but rather that they should really have MUCH smaller spaces, and leave the bigger spaces for actual businesses to fill.
So okay, I've put out what I see the big issues are with existing businesses, but how about a larger issue--people in Brookline don't seem to do anything to support new businesses. We all complain about how we need more new businesses to revitalize the area, but when one opens up...nobody goes there. This leads to vacant storefronts because said new businesses can't pay their bills, and potential new businesses see it as a bad risk because, well, nobody will patronize them if they open in Brookline. People in our community tend to be insular and creatures of habit. They've been going to the Moonlight or the Brookline Pub for decades, so that's where they go. As Sweet Brown might say, "ain't nobody got time for nothin' else."
Brookline residents need to spread the love a little. Don't abandon your favorite watering holes--by all means continue to patronize legacy businesses often. But give the new places a shot as well. Stop in, see what's going on, and drop a few bucks on a drink or a trinket. This will not only help new businesses, but it will continue to build Brookline as a community. Step out of your comfort zone and you will often discover something new and exciting that you never knew you'd enjoy, and you may make some entirely new friends to complement the ones you've had for a long time.
Now finally, let's turn to the landlords who own property on the Boulevard. I can't claim to know what rent is but I expect it varies wildly. One business owner who just has a hole-in-the-wall space told me it was because it was all he could afford. Then there's that huge and recently-failed new convenience store space down by the cannon which was advertized a couple years ago at $500/month, which is obnoxiously cheap for a commercial space of that size. The problem here is twofold: rent control and lower rent for the more expensive properties would be an excellent idea, if landlords could be counted upon to put their own greed aside for the betterment of the community. Not likely, but we'll give them the benefit of the doubt for our purposes here.
A bigger issue, and one to which landlords should open their eyes, is the nature of the businesses opening. The aforementioned convenience store, for example. That place was filthy, disgusting, and poorly run from the moment it opened its doors. The owners, one got the sense, leapt into it without looking or thinking, banking on the low rent to give them success. Frankly, that place would've been far better run by the owners of Cannon Coffee or the Geekadrome, who could be in a space double their size for way cheaper.
What am I saying here and what does it have to do with the landlords? The answer is simple: landlords with commercial space should take some time to actually vet their prospective tenants. For example--got a business plan? Let's see it. If not, then you don't get to rent. Sure, this is asking landlords to take on more time and responsibility in getting tenants, but think about it. It's far better in the long run to have a tenant that's going to last, take care of the property, and pay you rent on a monthly basis for years to come, than it is to have one who opens shop for six months, destroys the property, then closes down and vanishes, leaving you holding the ball for the year-long cleanup and repair job while the property sits vacant, then forcing you to have to raise rent to recoup your costs.
Brookline is caught between an older generation who liked things the way the were and shudder at the thought of young upstarts coming in, and a younger generation--those young upstarts--who want the world but aren't taking responsibility for making it once their doors open. And hovering over it all are the landlords, who could do more to control rent and vet tenants, and the community at large, who don't support new startups as strongly as we should. If we want Brookline to once again be a vibrant community, we all need to work together to make it happen.