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."

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman