Mall in the Family

While other downtown malls died, Boulderís was a real success story. But then came the chains and other Block-busters.

Naim's passion for his work is transparent. As a student in electrical engineering in Germany, he spent all of his time helping his brother, who was attending Idar-Oberstain, a gemological school there. "Always my mind and spirit were working with gems," he says. "You're dealing with nature's wealth. You feel certain energies surrounding you; you have to treat it well."

Naim travels the world in pursuit of his passion. "You pick up a piece of rough stone in Africa, have someone cut and shape it in Asia, bring it to a jeweler here and create a design," he explains. "So it goes from that raw thing in Africa to a finished piece that every woman who walks in the door falls in love with."

But the rent for the space behind that door has been rising steadily since Naim and Mary first moved in, and business has fallen off drastically in the last four or five years. That's because parking is scarce, Naim says; more than once, he's seen people screaming at each other over a disputed space in front of his store.

He has designs on Boulder: Richard Foy of Communication Arts.
James Bludworth
He has designs on Boulder: Richard Foy of Communication Arts.
A real page-turner: David Bolduc has a plan to save the mall.
James Bludworth
A real page-turner: David Bolduc has a plan to save the mall.

Once he realized that Flatirons Crossing would be opening ten miles from downtown Boulder, Naim knew the Gem Source's days were numbered. Still, he agonized for several months before making the decision to close the store at the end of December. "It was very upsetting," he says. "It becomes almost like separating from a member of the family. Nine out of ten people coming in said they were sad to see us and other small stores closing. Every one of them said they hate the changes in the mall, they hate to see the chain stores coming in and taking over."

Dick Schwarz's Stage House Two -- a treasure trove of unusual artworks, sophisticated prints, valuable old books and cheap, dog-eared paperbacks -- got its start when he was in the Navy in the late Sixties. Having just finished graduate school at Johns Hopkins, he'd decided to open a store in Boulder and began looking for books, sending his discoveries home from Barcelona and Naples. Meanwhile, his father had leased a garage behind Hurdle's Jewelry, which still occupies the same space on Pearl Street it did then.

"My dad turned it into a bookstore," Schwarz recalls, "found books from a busted porno store in Denver, had the place ready to go." He and his father ran the shop together until his father's death in 1978.

In 1980, Schwarz moved his store, which had been temporarily housed in the Boulder Theater, to his current location. "As we moved in, the Guru Maharaj Ji was fleeing out the back door," he says. "I could see that big golden-bronze Mercedes pulling away. This was his ashram, and they weren't paying their rent.

"He had come here in the early Seventies, when Boulder was a focal point for the Rainbow gathering," Schwarz continues. "He had the Rainbows and all these other people who were leaving California because it was going to fall into the sea. He blessed them, and they stayed. Some of them helped found Ward as we know it today."

Schwarz remembers the days before the mall, and the talk in the early Seventies about creating a pedestrian space downtown. Although many merchants were extremely skeptical, "I was pretty open to something revolutionary like that," he says. "For ten years, the mall was a great success. It drew people. Everybody had to go down there and bring visiting relatives and friends."

But having attracted droves of shoppers, the city adamantly refused to accommodate cars -- not for the shoppers, not for downtown employees. A couple of structures went up, but they were not enough to meet the growing need. As more and more offices located on or near the mall, cars spilled by the thousands into bordering residential neighborhoods. When the neighbors complained, city council listened. They installed an arcane neighborhood permit system that took most cars off residential streets, exacerbating the mall parking problem. "We're an auto-dependent business," Schwarz says. "You're not going to take four boxes of used books and put them on your bicycle and bring them downtown.

"You can't preemptively obsolete the car without preemptively obsoleting the businesses that depend on the car," he adds. "Now it's only chains coming downtown. Chains can afford to lose money for a long time."

Schwarz can't. The 700-space parking garage that recently opened on 15th Street "would have saved a lot of downtown businesses had it been built in '89 or '90," he says. "It certainly would have saved mine."

But Boulder's mayor, Will Toor, says he doesn't believe that parking has been a serious problem for the mall. The downtown area is flourishing, he insists, and constitutes "one of the most successful businesses in the city. It does far better than Crossroads, which is surrounded by acres of parking. And that's dependent on the fact that it is pedestrian-friendly."

In fact, Toor's concerned about what will happen when the city adds more spaces planned for downtown. "As we put in more parking down there," he says, "we're going to change the character and make it more like every other area."

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