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There is a lot of talk these days about keeping downtown viable, about saving Main Street. Much of that talk centers around our notions of a time long gone, when things were cheaper, old men sat on benches watching the world pass by, kids and dogs ran free downtown, and local businesses were where people shopped.
It is pleasant to remember such times. They make for great stories and memories. Much of it is retold in this very blog and by this very writer. But if we are to move ahead and retain something of a community feel, then much of that longing for the old days is beside the point.
And so with the Christmas season upon us, and Stroll behind us, it was good time to take a look at Main Street from a shop-owner’s point of view.
Liz Rocks has watched Main street through the window of Wolfhound for two decades, as the owner of the shop for the last 10 years. Like a lot of local merchants, she can see the tide of business ebb whenever another downtown place closes its doors.
“When we lost RJ Miller’s and the pharmacy last year, that hurt,” she said. “Now the Camera Shop is getting ready to close and maybe the Atlantic Café.” She shrugs, not needing to finish the thought. She tries to remain optimistic. “The Friday after Thanksgiving I saw a more local people downtown than I have in the past.”
It is that local person she stays open all year for. This is not one of those shops or restaurants that have decided it is not profitable to stay open in the off-season. You will never see a sign on her door that says, “Closed. See you at Stroll.”
Rocks is not alone in staying open all winter. There are still a handful of true owner-operator types, people who take a loss to keep their stores open because they think it is the right thing to do. These are the kind of shops where the person behind the counter is very often the person who owns the place.
“On this little block alone there is Sammy at Nobby Shop and Stephanie at Peach Tree,” she said.
The core of downtown is built on shops like these. They are places where I know the shop owners by their first names – although if they are of a certain age I cannot stop myself from calling them Mr. or Mrs. – or more likely we recognize each other from years of seeing each other here and there around the island without even really knowing each other’s names.
Rocks knows that a lot of local people have begun to think that the stores downtown are not meant for them.
“My store is a mix of some things that are high-end and some that are more reasonable,” she said. “But every store downtown offers the possibility of finding something unique and reasonable and not from a mall. I don’t want people to run up their credit cards, but local people can make a difference by simply shopping on-island first. If you don’t find what you need, you can always go off-island later.”
Her small-town Christmas moment came on Friday night of Stroll weekend. Two big decorations, based on the “Nutcracker Suite,” were left outside for the night and the next morning they were gone. They are generally brought inside for the night for the very reason that they might be tempting to kids, or drunks, or who knows who. Anyway, they were gone. No ransom note. Just gone.
Then on Monday morning they were back. Just like that.
“We’re not sure of their story,” said Liz with a smile. “It might have been a good Samaritan or one of the cops that walk downtown that found them and knew where they belonged.”
These are not chain stores, where the money goes off-island. This is what our neighbors do for a living. These are places where the money you spend gets circulated around town.
It is easy to find books on Amazon.com or a new winter coat on LL Bean’s website. But you pay a price that does not show up on your credit card. That price is the loss of something important, the further erosion of that thing we call community.
Last week I was looking to buy a book as a gift for someone. I went downtown, had a beer at the Brotherhood, and walked next store to Nantucket Bookworks. I found the book. But I also said hello to Wendy – who owns the place and keeps it open later than her accountant might advise so there is another shop with its lights on after dark – and chatted for a few moments with Dick Burns, who has worked there off and on for years and knows about books.
It was just a small moment in my day. Pleasant but not momentous. Still, we spend time looking in the rear-view mirror at the past, longing for a different time. But if that small moment did not describe what we are looking for, then I am not sure what we really want. Sometimes it is up to us all to look with different eyes.
– John Stanton