A Fistful of Dollar Stores

18Jul14

Economic revitalization of downtown areas is usually aimed at sprucing up what’s already here through things like improved, uniform signage and dressing up storefronts as well as attracting the kinds of new businesses that reflect the quaint, warm and homey small town feel that we either remember from our childhoods or have seen on postcards from the Good Old Days before malls and the Internet stole all our retail commerce.

cvs_oldWhich makes all the recent hand-wringing over a possible “Dollar Store” in downtown Wakefield, MA so very interesting.

That possibility has once again surfaced with respect to the possible re-uses of the still vacant former CVS building on Main Street in Wakefield. Rumors that a Dollar Store was going into the space first came up earlier this year. But at the time, people were too busy dictating to the owners of the Fraen Corporation what they could do with their property to give much more than passing attention to the specter of a Dollar Store.

family_dollarBut now the Dollar Store rumors are back and terms like “cheesy, “cheap,” “low rent” and “Revere” are being tossed around by those who think that a Dollar Store would be just so unbecoming for a town like Wakefield, especially as we aspire to return to our homey, quaint, village-like atmosphere of a generation or so ago.

Perhaps a stroll down Memory Lane – or better yet, Main Street – is in order to remind us of what our quaint downtown looked like back in the Good Old Days.

main_street_sixtiesWay back in those halcyon days of the ‘50s and ‘60s, we had as many as three dollar type stores on the west side of Main Street in Wakefield Square. They had different names of course, like “J.J. Newberry,” “Woolworth’s” and “Diskay.” Back then, such stores were affectionately known as “five and ten cent stores.”

In what’s now known as the Old Theatre Block, Wakefield also had a “W.T. Grant” store which started out in in Lynn, MA in 1906 as the “W.T. Grant 25 Cent Store.” People who shopped at Grant’s wouldn’t be caught dead in a five and ten.
quarter
Well, you can’t get anything for a nickel or a dime or even a quarter anymore, but if these four stores were around today they’d be known as “dollar stores.” Instead of most of the merchandise priced at five or 10 cents, most everything would cost a dollar. It’s what they call “inflation.”

I daresay the signs on all four of those pre-dollar stores exceeded the currently allowed 15 square feet and I’m pretty sure most were internally illuminated. (Back then, a modern, electric sign was actually considered a big improvement over the pre-Thomas Edison, wood-carved models. Go figure.)

Of course, everybody who didn’t spend $1.6 million to purchase the old CVS building has an idea for what “should” go in that space. Everything’s been mentioned from a baby clothing store to a bookstore to a place for local artists to sell their crafts, paintings and sculptures. In other words, stores that people think would “look nice” but would be gone in a year because none of the people who thought it would look nice ever went there.

If a Dollar Store is what the landlord decides, the town should embrace its working class roots and welcome it. If it was good enough for our parents and grandparents, it ought to be good enough for us.

[This column originally appeared in the July 17, 2014 Wakefield Daily Item.]

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3 Responses to “A Fistful of Dollar Stores”

  1. 1 Joan

    I hope we get one…great cards , gift bag ,balloons and much more.g

  2. 2 Mike O

    Economic vitalization of a town has a number of dimensions. Money comes into a town in four basic forms. Commuting, Manufacturing, Services and Retail. Wakefield is somewhat of a commuter town, in that many residents work in Boston, or along 128, and either drive, or take the train (to Boston). It is “easy” for the commuters who drive to spend money in other towns, however it is easy for those who take the train to spend money in Wakefield square. Retail needs to work with this demographic, by having convenient hours and plenty of parking. Commuters have plenty of money from good paying jobs, and convenience means a lot and they will pay for it. Most commuter jobs also exist in well run companies, and hire talented, congenial people. This is important to the fabric of Wakefield society.

    Wakefield used to have considerable manufacturing, and still has some. Like commuting, these jobs both pay well and attract top talent. Those who both live and work in Wakefield will shop in Wakefield. It is unlikely that those who don’t live in Wakefield will shop in the square, but marketing can change that. Again, the talent pool from manufacturing is healthy for the town.

    Services are necessary in any town, and given the tendency of service jobs to pay less, there is a challenge to marketing to them. A retail area needs free parking and a critical mass of diverse stores to market effectively to people in services. Some service jobs pay well – banking, real estate, construction, insurance – but these companies are smaller than most, and lack the organizational development and employee training that commuters and those in manufacturing experience. There is an upper limit to the percentage of service workers versus the “value proposition” of the retail mix. Just look at an inner city neighborhood – the quality, variety, choice and price of a retail selection is not very desirable. But there is a sweet spot – a certain amount of “low cost” retail not only increases the overall attraction of a commercial district, it also makes service people part of the community.

    Wakefield was always a town “in the middle” of the socioeconomic ladder. Neither grinding poverty nor wealthy excess characterized the range of family incomes. But for the vast majority, they thought they could do better and they did. I think a discount store may provoke a bit of fear. But remember your history – the namesake of Wakefield – Cyrus himself – was a 19th century “Dumpster Diver”. He picked up discarded rattan and turned it into millions! (I think that if political correctness reaches WHS, and “Warriors” becomes taboo, we should ask Danbury for their dormant mascot – the “Trashers” – to remind us of our roots.)

    Wakefield is a little trickier than most towns. It is chopped up by lakes, woods, rocks and parks into distinct neighborhoods. Our five neighbors have much more coherent and compact geographies. Our commuters go to different corporate cultures – there is no central Maytag or IBM that spawns town management with a coherent management style from one corporation. But Wakefield was once regarded as “The most enterprising community north of Boston” and that spirit still lives. On the one hand, the disparate neighborhoods can spawn cliques, but on the other hand, strong community groups can form. I think of how St. Joseph’s school had a strong community across all the neighborhoods, and they produced a generation, or two of “Relationship Carpenters” – skilled in the arts of building community.

    Let’s go one step further and enlighten all our community groups to be “Relationship Machinists”, and examine our fears and aspirations to build a better town. Many – I would venture most – have done well in life. The niche disciplines of geo-demogrphics and economic geography (those of you who did War College,or read “The Millionaire Next Door” recognize these) apply well to Wakefield. Those good old days were good, but the new days can be better. Let’s git ‘er done!

  3. 3 Joanne Carey

    Bravo! Embrace change or die is one realism that people forget when they are spending other folks’ money.

    Big Lots, McFrugal’s, and other stores similar and exactly like dollar stores thrive because everyone wants to save $.

    If people truly had the courage of their convictions, they’d stop shopping places like Wal-Mart or eating at McDonald’s or urging wars because our hard working people and vets who work at all these places are subsidizing their very low incomes by also subsisting on food stamps and heat assistance while working full time jobs.

    If you don’t want it in your back yard, then don’t shop there.

    But, don’t also shop at the store in the next town or two over (supporting the problem) through self-delusion.

    Dollar stores exist for a reason (just like Building 19-1/2) and should be built where the owner thinks they can be sustainable.

    I’ve worked in the book and craft industry for many years (part time work – because it’s never enough to live on) and those industries are dying as electronics and digital data are taking over our lives and replacing entire economic spectrums of retail society. Ignoring the problem won’t bring those industries back and make customers appear.

    After all, who still needs a cooper? Anybody buy a handmade barrel lately?
    How about plow horse harnesses?
    Looms for weaving?

    These examples are from previous generations where those skills were valued and no longer are relevant.

    It’s about practicality and facing reality.
    Anything in that space is better than a vacant storefront.


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