Mall in the Family
Dick Schwarz has had enough.
His family has been selling books, antiques and art in Boulder County since his parents opened a shop in an old stage house in Lyons back in the late Fifties. But his Stage House Two, on Pearl Street just west of Boulder's Pearl Street Mall, is closing this month, and he places the blame squarely on a city council that, year after year, has refused to provide more than a minimal amount of downtown parking because many of its members have an ideological dislike of cars.
"This town lives in a frou-frou land," he says. "It isn't really an economy we have. It exists outside all normal economic laws. This town is best at building and nourishing bureaucracies. Merchants are a throwaway commodity. Get rid of one, you get another one."
Stores like Stage House Two have been an integral part of the social as well as financial topography of the mall since it opened in August 1977. For most Boulderites, and in accordance with the vision of its founders, the mall is much more than an alternative to commercial shopping centers or a handy source of revenue for the city. It is the heart of the community, a gathering place, the city's core and epicenter. It provides a venue for strolling and people-watching. Children come here to play, performers to entertain, old friends to gossip over coffee. More than brick and stone, the mall is the sum of the experiences it generates. It concretizes the town's history.
Next to Stage House Two is a wooden door. Rising immediately behind it, a steep stairway leads to a narrow corridor: on the left, a violinmaker and the home of a visual artist, on the right the Ballet Arts studio, which has occupied this same spot for over thirty years. Little girls who, decades ago, climbed the stairs for lessons in creative movement ("Float like a cloud; open like a flower") are now grown women leading their toddlers to their first ballet lessons. When a dancer has a mishap at the barre, she may hobble next door to Tom's Tavern -- as dancers have for years -- and beg a bag of ice cubes. Across the street, from his bookstore's second floor (once the ballroom of a luxurious private house), David Bolduc can look out the window and into Ballet Arts, glimpsing an arm floating by, the turn of a dancer's head.
"It's very pure and sweet seeing this piece of form," he says. "It's almost like everything's okay when you see this, that this gesture has been repeated and repeated in this space over so many years."
But these days, everything is not okay on the Pearl Street Mall. This living tapestry is unraveling.
A Cheesecake Factory has appeared on the mall's easternmost block, along with a Starbucks; large, bland, out-of-scale buildings are going up in the block beyond that. A Borders Books is coming to the area and will threaten not only Bolduc's Boulder Book Store, but several specialty and secondhand bookshops, including the feminist Word Is Out. The Troubador, which offered books on the arts and a reading and performance space, has already closed its doors. Storekeepers east of the mall suffered through a disastrous year of construction as underground utilities were restored and the long-promised 15th Street parking garage was built; some of their stores did not survive. And the remaining merchants worry not only about parking, rising rents and the incursion of chain stores, but about competition from the coming revitalization of Crossroads Mall; from Flatirons Crossing, set to open in Broomfield in April; from the big-box retailers infesting east Boulder County.
Bolduc has a plan, though. He's been working closely with Jeff Milchen, director of the 140-member Boulder Independent Business Association, on a sweeping proposal that would aid local businesses not just on the mall, but across Boulder. If adopted, their Community Vitality Act would ban the opening of new chains -- which it calls "formula businesses" -- within Boulder city limits. At the urging of City Attorney Joe de Raismes, who thinks the CVA could be illegal, the Boulder City Council started studying the proposal this week.
In the meantime, city officials are in the midst of planning a renovation of the 22-year-old mall that will either make it even more attractive and inviting -- or Disney-fy it beyond redemption.
The Gem and Jewelry Source has stood two doors away from Stage House Two for over twelve years. Naim and Mary Doost took the business over from a friend in 1990, having come to Colorado because of its similarities in climate and terrain to their homeland, Afghanistan. They were drawn to Boulder because of the friendly people and the centrality of the mall. "It has a small-town feeling but big-city amenities," Naim says. "It reminded me of cities in Europe."
In his well-laid-out shop, draped inside and out with huge, red "Going Out of Business" signs, Naim walks from case to case, pointing out treasures. There's a mother elephant standing with her baby, their trunks raised at an identical angle, carved out of a large blue lapis lazuli rock from Afghanistan; a slab of polished rock from Morocco that contains the elegant outlines of fossilized fish fifty million years old; amethyst crystals from Naim's brother's mine in Zambia; jewelry made from glowing pink rhodochrosite. This, too, is from Afghanistan, although the best rhodochrosite, according to Naim, comes from a mine in Golden.
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.
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."
In an annual survey conducted for the Downtown Management Committee, however, this fall RRC Associates found significant levels of consumer discontent with the parking situation downtown. Mall visitors were asked to score their experiences on a scale of one to five. While "atmosphere," "ease of walking around" and "safety and cleanliness" all rated between four and five, parking ranked between two and three with "adequacy/availability" lowest at 2.5. Under the heading "single most important improvement you would like to see," expanding parking facilities received the most response -- 26 percent.
While overall patronage of the mall remained high, the survey found that the percentage of out-of-town visitors had dropped from 38 percent in 1998 to 30 percent in 1999 -- a small drop, but one RRC considers significant because those visitors tend to spend more on restaurants and shopping than Boulder residents.
The survey also asked for comments and received many deploring the growing presence of chain stores. "Not enough local shops," "too many chain outlets," "losing hometown feel," respondents said. But RRC's David Belin notes that another common complaint was the lack of lower-priced merchandise.
During the Sixties and Seventies, downtowns across the country built malls. Almost all of them failed. Boulder's success can be attributed to several factors. There was the care taken by original planners, their insistence that the project be well-thought-through and soundly executed (see "Scenes From a Mall," page 30). There was the already established downtown presence of churches, banks, a post office, Boulder's main library and various government buildings. And unlike many malls, the Pearl Street Mall was surrounded by residential neighborhoods; in addition to guaranteeing foot traffic, this ensured that a downtown mall would not take on the unreal character common to places frequented only by shoppers and tourists.
Many malls failed because they were in areas that completely excluded traffic. But in Boulder, Broadway remained open, along with the streets intersecting Pearl, ensuring that the mall was visible -- and seemed central -- to people driving around town. Boulder's natural beauty was another plus, as was Colorado's generally clement weather.
Almost everyone agrees that the mall's physical design -- the work of Communication Arts, the architectural firm of Everett-Zeigel and Massachusetts landscape designers Sasaki, Dawson and Demay and Associates -- is brilliant. In designing a public space, "We ask questions about what makes people feel good about where they live and put those elements into play," says Richard Foy of Communication Arts, which would later work on Park Meadows, the "retail resort."
Boulder has always fancied itself a cultivated and cosmopolitan place, Foy adds. "The pioneers wanted to outlaw feed stores from locating on Pearl Street because wagons being loaded was insufficiently cosmopolitan," he explains. "They wanted Boulder to be the Princeton of the West, and the university did set it apart from the surrounding agrarian towns. Boulder is still targeted by the rest of the state as elitist, artsy, conceited, living in our own reality." He laughs.
Back in the mid-Seventies, the designers settled on a timeless, classical look for the Pearl Street Mall. They paved it in warm red brick (brought in from New York), set up benches and flower beds, provided tall, round kiosks for fliers and planted trees -- a different species on each of the mall's four blocks to protect against insect damage -- and clusters of evergreens to provide year-round foliage.
There was a lot at stake in those early years. At one planning meeting, Foy remembers, "someone came up, grabbed me by the collar and slammed me against the wall. 'How long have you been in Boulder?' he said. 'I've lived here all my life, and if this fails, I'm coming after you.'"
Communication Arts fronts Pearl Street, so Foy lives daily with his own design. "We've been on this mall 25 years," he says. "We know what works."
Recently, the city hired Communication Arts to work on a redesign of the mall; Boulder has budgeted $350,000 a year for renovation work. Design modifications are already under discussion, and Foy feels the project will give him a chance to rectify some early mistakes. He wants to widen the sidewalk in some spots; do away with the patch of green in front of the Boulder Book Store and turn it into a paved outdoor dining area; take down some of the tree planters in front of the courthouse and set up a jet fountain there; use subtle lighting to accentuate the architectural features of the street's historic buildings; create archways welcoming people onto the mall; and install an electronic information booth.
Foy is optimistic about the mall's continued vitality. He believes the small shop owners being forced off Pearl Street by high rents will set up vibrant little enclaves surrounding it. And to some extent, this has already happened at either end of the mall and on nearby streets.
The mall proper is only four blocks long, but it is not monolithic. It changes character block by block, and the blocks beyond it at either end have their own ambience and are considered by most Boulderites to be part of the mall. In front of the Boulder Book Store are planters with low walls and the eventually to-be-eliminated patch of grass where, in good weather, office workers sit and eat lunch. Two ice cream shops -- Häagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry's, both locally owned national franchises -- face each other catty-corner across Broadway.
In the middle of the next block stands the Peppercorn, one of the most sophisticated and exhaustively stocked household stores in the country, crammed with kitchenware, cookbooks, china, glassware and exotic foods -- honey from New Zealand, almond nougat from Italy, Spanish olive oil and Colorado mustards and salsas. In front of the Peppercorn is a garden of gravel and large smooth stones spanned by a wooden bridge that is usually filled with clambering children. At the end of the block, outside what used to be J.B. Winberie's and is now the locally owned Boulder Café, is a corner where, almost every sunny day for over a decade, Lucky Hudson played his sax, filling the air with his smoky notes, sometimes changing a melody to suit the taste of a passerby he recognized. Hudson lived in a Denver senior center and traveled to Boulder by bus. He died in 1997 of stomach cancer; several Boulderites are raising money for a memorial on his corner.
The county courthouse takes up the entire north side of the next block. Its presence is both a curse and a blessing for the mall. Civic buildings tend to be good for downtowns, bringing in clients and workers who eat, shop and run errands in the neighborhood. The courthouse lawn is also used for demonstrations and festivals -- not to mention national media covering Boulder's big stories. But some planners think shoppers are less apt to stroll the courthouse block because it is so different from the other three and contains fewer shops. And to the annoyance of nearby merchants and restaurateurs, the courthouse lawn has been a magnet for transients (see sidebar, page 32). The county commissioners had the space outside the courthouse reconfigured in 1997 to make it less inviting; they object, however, to Communication Arts's plan for further modification of this part of the mall.
"The county is in an odd position," says County Commissioner Paul Danish. "It's a tenant on Pearl Street. It owns the building. The city has, over the years, attempted to design our piece into part of the mall. It's an admirable goal, but it's also important to remember the courthouse belongs to all the people in Boulder County. We have to make some statement that sets us a little apart; we're reluctant to allow the plaza to spill over into our area seamlessly."
The commissioners have decided to move the county clerk's office out of downtown, although other county functions will continue to be based at the courthouse. The clerk's primary function is to sell license plates and register cars, and people drive into town for this purpose, when "parking in Boulder is such sweet sorrow," explains Danish. But the county's move, along with reports that the post office, currently located a couple of blocks off the mall, is looking for new quarters because of parking problems, troubles some city officials, who feel the daily influx of government workers and customers helps keep the downtown healthy.
On the 1400 block of Pearl, the huge Cheesecake Factory has taken over space once occupied by Sawadee, a popular local Thai eatery. The new parking garage that Dick Schwarz says would have saved Stage House Two had it been built earlier has transformed the 1500 block of Pearl. It is far larger than most of the buildings surrounding it.
The east end of Pearl, now rapidly being gentrified, has long been a refuge for hippies, artists and dissidents. Its businesses include a tiny Beat bookshop with a check signed by Jack Kerouac posted in the window; Penny Lane, a coffee-drinking, poetry-reading haven for teens; stores boasting wares that would have been at home in any Sixties head shop; the vegetarian Crystal Market, on the brink of closing and whose customers are trying to resurrect it as a co-op; and Jessica Shah's well-reviewed Indian restaurant, Mijbani.
This year, the city decided to reconstruct the underground utilities in this area and to widen and improve the sidewalks. Disruption was inevitable. It was compounded by the contractor's inefficiency; eventually, he was fired and replaced. Construction of the parking facility added to merchants' woes, removing existing parking and re-routing traffic away from their stores. For long months, East Pearl looked like a moonscape.
"My business dropped by 40 percent this summer," says Craig Moelis, one of the owners of Foolish Craig's. "It was awful. People still aren't coming in as much as they used to."
Foolish Craig's is a small, cozy restaurant, strung with decorative lights and filled with orange, red and green wooden tables. The employees pick the music the customers hear -- Moelis is partial to jazz -- and the food is homey and good: salads, crepes, soups, and sandwiches made with delicious, thick-sliced, home-baked bread. It was the bread that gave the restaurant its name.
"For rye bread, you make a poolish -- like you make a starter for sourdough," Moelis explains. "I'd be in doing that, and my partners would be chanting, 'Craig's making poolish. That's pretty foolish.'"
Moelis, a onetime philosophy student at the University of Colorado, was working at Moe's Bagels when he decided to start his own restaurant. He wanted something casual, he says, "nothing too fancy, but inviting and warm."
Now a Borders bookstore is slated for a site across the street from Foolish Craig's. Moelis is unsure of the fate of his building and is likely to move his restaurant to a spot down the street. He regards the future with a mixture of hope and fear. He knows that having chain stores in the neighborhood may help his business; he is also saddened by the changes he sees around him. "Things like the Cheesecake Factory -- it's scary for people like us," he says. "I have one restaurant, and this is my life right now. The Cheesecake Factory could suck up all the labor, all the customers. But I met my girlfriend at this restaurant. So whatever happens, it was worth it."
J. Nold Midyette and a partner own large stretches of Pearl Street, including the block currently occupied by the Cheesecake Factory and part of the block that Borders will move into. Midyette refused to comment on his role in the rapid chaining of downtown.
Tom Schantz of the Rue Morgue mystery bookstore has plenty to say about chains, however. "They broke ground for the mall the morning after my daughter was born," he says. "I left the hospital and went to the Aristocrat for a greasy-spoon breakfast. It's gone now, replaced by Banana Republic. So many places that were a vital part of downtown are gone. We used to have Bohemian Cafe, Sunshine, Hannah's vegetarian food over her shop -- those are the kinds of thing I lament the most.
"As covered shopping malls begin to fail, chains are looking at downtowns again, if for no other reason than to be billboards for their mall stores," he continues. "We have four Gap stores downtown. I seriously doubt there's enough real business for them. Why would you come here to shop at the Gap? Seven malls on your way to Boulder have Gap stores. We used to have people from as far away as Gillette, Wyoming. They'd buy books from me, wine at the Wine Merchant, fresh bagels at the Bagel Bakery, because they didn't have those things at home. If the downtown gets too bland to attract shoppers, there might be some kind of reversal. In the meantime, how much of the town's character is essentially lost?
"A few years ago, I went to a book fair in San Diego. Next to the large hotel complex was an outdoor mall that looked like the downtown mall, but all newly constructed. As if they had taken a covered mall and just ripped the top off. As you walked along it, every single shop was a chain store except for one. It was at the very end. An antique store that sold nothing but signs from old San Diego businesses that had gone under. It was ironic. And sometimes I fear we're heading the same direction."
David Bolduc could write a book on what's gone wrong on the Pearl Street Mall. He's aware that the big chain bookstores have been putting independent booksellers like his Boulder Book Store out of business all over the country. He withstood the advent of Barnes & Noble several years ago (it is now located in a nearby shopping center) and has no intention of going quietly into the night if and when Borders opens five blocks away.
The sign on his office door reads "War Room."
Bolduc is a peaceable man, a Buddhist. He got into bookselling, he says, when it was still "somewhat a gentleperson's trade." But the relentless assault of chain bookstores has pressed him into action. "What brought us to the profession was some sense of how things should be," he says. "And when that's contradicted as wildly as it is now, we start getting a little bit upset."
Critics of chain bookstores say that not only do they ruin independents, they impoverish the culture at large. So powerful have they become that publishing houses consult them on what books to print. As a result, it is more difficult than ever before for a literary work to see publication. And since it's the independents who are willing to sell specialized, low-selling or eccentric books along with bestsellers, the primacy of chains makes it harder and harder for small presses and unusual books to survive.
Bolduc is motivated not just by a desire to save his business, but also by a sense that the world is out of whack. "The reason all this is happening is the extreme materialism of the culture," he says. "From the Buddhist point of view, these are the Dark Ages. Our heroes shouldn't be Bill Gates but Mother Theresa and the Dalai Lama. We're in a spiritual crisis."
In the Sixties, Bolduc worked in a Los Angeles bookstore, selling books by such revolutionary authors as Franz Fanon, R.D. Laing and Eldridge Cleaver. Revolution is still on his mind. Recently he read an American history book called The Day the Revolution Began. "Less than 10 percent of the population supported having a separate country at the time," Bolduc reports. "The sentiment was in favor of reconciliation with England. It was Samuel Adams, with no resources except a vision of a united colonies, who kept pushing for confrontation. When it was over, he faded into obscurity. It makes you realize it doesn't take a lot of people to achieve something."
Something, perhaps, like the Community Vitality Act?
While Mayor Toor says he can neither oppose nor endorse the CVA until it's been analyzed further, he's interested in exploring any tools available to "support the local character of our business districts." Although he, too, is concerned about the impact of chains, "some people think about it very fatalistically," he says. Meanwhile, the Boulder Independent Business Association has "done a valuable service by raising the issue," enabling citizens as well as councilmembers to discuss it at a meeting this week.
According to Jeff Milchen, the BIBA used the term "formula business" in its proposal for reasons of both clarity and legality. The act would not prevent an out-of-state corporation from opening a business in Boulder, but it would preclude that corporation from standardizing "product names, layout, decor, menus, uniforms or other...features which cause (the business) to be substantially similar to three or more other businesses." And the Crossroads area would be exempted from CVA stipulations, although chains there still would have to go through a special review if their proposed outlets were over a certain size.
As things stand now in Boulder, "it's a grossly uneven playing field," Milchen says. "If we had true competition, the chains would have gone bankrupt years ago. They operate in a completely different world than a brick-and-mortar business, a global financial casino...As long as they can continue to attract speculative investment from folks betting they will eventually drive out the competition and have an oligopoly, they can keep losing indefinitely."
In fact, on a national scale, Barnes & Noble and Borders are highly profitable, in part because many of the stores are entertainment centers selling dozens of items besides books. Given the volume of merchandise they deal in, they enjoy economies of scale and can make deals with publishers unavailable to independents. In many areas, they control the market, having long ago driven small local bookshops out of business.
"There are many people moving to Boulder from all around the country," says Lisa Gesner, who recently left her job as promotions manager for the Boulder Book Store. "When they see a place that has name recognition, that's the place they're going to go. Later, they may decide to go somewhere more unique and individual. They're concerned with saving money and convenience. It's the longtime Boulderites who know why the Boulder Book Store is so vital to the community."
Supporting local merchants makes sense economically, Milchen says, as they're more apt than chains to use local services and keep their profits in the community. "We don't have to be victims," he concludes. "Communities can take action to save their character."
Although the CVA would be more sweeping, similar policies have been adopted in other parts of the country, including Santa Cruz, California. But Boulder must fully consider the act's ramifications, warns City Manager Ron Secrist. Although he likes the idea of informing consumers about "independent businesses and their relationship with the community," he adds that "we need to be very, very careful about having governmental intervention into market forces."
Already the CVA faces stiff resistance. The Camera has editorialized against it; critics have decried it as protectionism and restraint of trade.
"It is those things," Bolduc says calmly. "We protect things all the time that we think are important, from our family to a redwood forest, from garden plants to endangered species. There are all kinds of trade barriers all over the world."
Bolduc's first Boulder shop, Back Country Bookstore, opened on Pearl Street in 1973 -- four years before the mall was created. He remembers a pet store, a bakery, boardinghouses in the area. "A connection with the past is very important for feeling everything's okay," he says. "Without that, you're floating out there. If we can make the ordinance happen, it will force property owners to relate to the community in an integrated way. Without chains, the rents can't keep ratcheting up 20 to 25 percent every year. The owners will have to work with local people, local entrepreneurs."
Like all of the proposed renovations to the mall, the act is the subject of heated debate. But this is Boulder, after all, where such debate is a time-honored tradition. "That's what it's all about," says Bolduc, "to be able to have face-to-face communication within a community.
"Everything gets sacrificed to the vision of more and more and more -- resources, the indigenous people, the environment," he adds. "What we're fighting is the force that puts money at the center of all relationships."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.