(photo courtesy of Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts — Sandy Aldieri of Perceptions Photography)
Late on a winter afternoon in the heart of Connecticut’s most vibrant downtown Main Street, Diane Gervais is starting to tell me how Amato’s Toy & Hobby made it through the coronavirus crisis, with innovations like “toy store takeout,” FaceTime shopping and custom-made Easter baskets filled with stuffed animals and games.
She stands in a tight space between her office and the checkout counter in the store her father, Vincent Amato, founded 81 years ago. Just then an elderly couple approaches gingerly. The man mentions their son, who grew up entering contests for model-making at Amato’s. “He’s now 50 years old,” the man, festooned in UConn gear, tells Gervais. “He flies 6-foot helicopters now.”
Gervais lights up and recalls the name as her daughter, 23-year-old Caroline Gervais, helps a customer. The man and woman leave, hand in gloved hand, to continue their day in Middletown. They stop for Thai food before heading back home to Guilford. “We came here today because we wanted to walk around a nice town center,” says the man, who didn’t want to give his name. Their central errand was at Malloves Jewelers, which owner Marc Levin’s grandfather bought in 1928. “She had a hard time getting a watch band from any other town,” the man says.
Nearby, a man in a business suit, carrying legal briefs, walks briskly with a slight limp across Main Street at the rainbow-painted crosswalk in the middle of town. His bearing shows an unmistakable sense of belonging. He is, sure enough, a fixture — Mark Balaban, with his law office in a building his father bought 50 years ago. Balaban worked briefly in his father’s furniture and appliance store in that same building, then went to law school and signed on for a few years with a firm in Bridgeport. “I knew that I was always going to come back to Middletown,” he tells me later.
After nightfall, a few hundred feet across Main Street, a 7-year-old boy bounces out of the Middlesex Music Academy with his father, swinging a long, thin package. It is his first pair of drumsticks and he’s just had his first drum lesson. Inside, owner Matt Lefebvre, a drummer himself but not the one giving lessons, recalls working at the same store — Matt’s Music, by coincidence — 20 years ago as a student at nearby Xavier High School.
Now the cycle continues. A new generation of kids comes downtown for music and lessons with a roster of 21 teachers in a space Lefebvre expanded and built out with a dozen mini-studios. “We’re pretty proud of the community we’re building,” he tells me.
And thus, community pride radiates outward from a Main Street that changes and yet freezes in time, through the town, down the Connecticut River, across the state. As Connecticut and the nation pass a full year of COVID-19, as towns look to refurbish, re-ignite and reinvent their centers, that sense of community stands as the key to the future on so many levels. We have a pent-up need for it in this generation, all the more in this moment at the back end of a pandemic.
Hard work along with natural assets
Middletown rises above just about anyplace else in the state for all kinds of reasons. Some that other cities and towns can’t even try to match: a critical mass of historic buildings in a dense area and Wesleyan University three blocks up the hill, to name two.
But Middletown, with Main Street commerce links all over the state — Gervais’ brother owns Amato’s in New Britain, and the original Malloves from the ’20s has two locations in New London County, for example — also offers lessons on how any town center can nurture its slippery, critical balance of diversity. That means history and newness; restaurants and traditional retail; landmark destinations and holes-in-the-wall; upscale and downscale, goods, services, offices, lodging, housing and events; and a racial and ethnic mix. Places such as Manchester, Essex, Greenwich, West Hartford, Mystic, Simsbury, Westport and Danbury make it work, more or less, with some, not necessarily all, of those elements.
And when it does work, the magic comes from a feeling that’s more than the sum of the parts, like a curated store with cool stuff and sounds, textures and aromas that make you want to take a piece of it home. “I came here in 1983 and lost my heart so I stayed,” says Jennifer Alexander, founder and director of Kidcity Children’s Museum, a downtown Middletown experience museum that attracted 112,000 visitors in 2019 but last year closed for COVID. “People want to visit Main Street because they can feel the connection that we have with each other.”
"Let’s bring these historic manufacturing downtown centers back to life."
To her, the economic mix is key, as middle-class Middletown has expensive restaurants, bodegas and social service agencies on the same blocks in the North End. “There are very few places that have that,” says Alexander, who arrived from New Jersey as a Wesleyan student and never left. “When you mix that with an entrepreneurial energy and reasonable rents … you have the recipe for a Main Street that can work.”
How does it all come together? Hint: Like Boston’s technology centers, like the success of LeBron James or Tom Brady, it starts with natural assets. But it doesn’t just happen. It’s the result of a crazy amount of very, very focused work. In Middletown’s case, that means a triad: the city, with no shortage of political infighting but longstanding agreement over Main Street; the Downtown Business District, commonly known as Downtown Middletown, the association that levies a small tax and advertises for the whole, with staff that solves problems and some very creative volunteers including Gervais and Alexander; and the Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce, led for decades by the tireless and persuasive Larry McHugh, former Xavier football coach and UConn board of trustees chairman.
McHugh recalls aggressively luring restaurants years ago. Now, some retailers think the balance has swung too far toward food. Unapologetic, he’s both idealistic and blunt, speaking of restaurants in distress from the pandemic. “Only three or four that have closed but I would say there’s another percentage of them that are in financial trouble,” he tells me as the vaccines ramp up and the COVID numbers come down.
Balaban, the lawyer, talks about all the work Gervais did a few years back, producing TV ads for Main Street. McHugh talks about Kidcity as a “magic maker,” whose months-long closing has hurt the downtown. “Once that gets going you’ll see that whole back lot full every day,” he says.
An old-line retailer’s COVID headaches
The number of empty storefronts — always a worry in any town center — remains a concern, with a few high-profile vacancies. But it seems lower than I might have expected a year into coronavirus, having covered the Connecticut economy for 30 years, and having frequented Middletown since I was a Wesleyan student years before that. I even won a free meal by naming the restaurant attached to the food co-op in the North End, where I had been a member. Back then, men’s and women’s clothing stores held forth including the Regal Men’s Shop. Today, apparel is scarce but the Regal location is still a men’s store, Ramani’s Clothiers.
Coronavirus hasn’t been good for Ramani’s, as customers aren’t in need of new garb for shuttered offices. Weddings, a big part of the business through tuxedo rentals, came to a halt along with just about all special gatherings. “It’s been peace and quiet,” Larry Wani, the manager of 12 years, says as he looks up from the front desk. That’s not a good peace and quiet. But despite the long-term slide in men’s suits and intense pressure on the apparel trade, the COVID shutdown has pretty much represented the major threat. “Other than that, we were very good here,” says Wani, who was born in India and raised in Hong Kong before immigrating to the U.S.
Wani pores over an 8½-by-11-inch spiral notebook, meticulously copying sales information from December. The holiday season fared “very, very badly,” he says. “Almost 75 percent down. I don’t want to even write it.”
It’s an old-fashioned ledger that he will then enter into the desktop computer. I ask why not skip the notebook and enter the sales right into the system; he wants to have a written record. With no customers in the store, we talk about the long, front-to-back racks of suits, which have seen about a 40 percent decline in sales volume over the last generation. They’re fully updated, unlike the ledger system, and I ask about competition from that giant chain that famously sells 3-for-1 suits. “They have their own clientele. Our clientele do not go to Joseph A. Bank,” he says. “The old customers, they come back here.”
The owner of the store also owns the building, and has another Ramani’s location at the Westfield Meriden mall. That’s a mall and a city that has struggled, but Meriden has seen an uptick recently with some downtown renovations, helped, slowly, by the rail line between Hartford and New Haven. Meriden, with a long green in the middle of town, still has a lot of its old buildings and uses its historic downtown as a selling point. Like a lot of small manufacturing cities in the post-industrial age, Meriden hopes to bring back traditional retail in its center.
At Ramani’s, the hope is for a return to pre-COVID culture. It’s a traditional place, no hip-hop here, though I spy a bright red, peaked lapel jacket in the mix. Ah, Wani says wistfully, prom wear. “Are they having it this year? Usually, starting in January, February, we’d get busy for the proms. This year, so far we haven’t had anybody.” He’d rather talk about the rack of Robert Graham shirts, $200 and up, which sell pretty well.
‘A really large outpouring of support’
The Wesleyan RJ Julia Bookstore also sells apparel — licensed merchandise from the university. That store, in the middle of Main Street, marked a triple triumph when it opened in 2017, taking over from Wesleyan’s old bookstore operation closer to campus. First, it brought perhaps Connecticut’s best known independent bookseller, noted for events at its landmark store in Madison, to the state’s premier Main Street. Second, it tied the university more directly to downtown. And third, it included an upscale cafe, Grown, owned by Shannon Allen, the Middletown native who’s married to basketball hall-of-famer and UConn hoops icon Ray Allen.
Grown, a franchise started by Shannon Allen, ended operations at the bookstore at the end of 2019 and the cafe has remained idle through the coronavirus shutdown. And, of course, in-store events remain on hold — a significant hit considering the visiting authors have included the likes of Hillary Clinton with her post-2016 book, What Happened.
But the bookstore is a true community success story — McHugh at the chamber recalls hard work helping pull the deal together — and Middletown was not about to let it wither in a pandemic. “We saw a really large outpouring of support during those months when we weren’t able to have people in the store,” says Katharine Otis, the marketing and events coordinator.
Not many years ago, a single bookstore probably wouldn’t have a person devoting most of her time to events. Even during coronavirus, the book talks continue online robustly with at least 11 events on the February schedule, including a talk with child psychologist Harold Koplowicz, author of The Scaffold Effect, with bestselling author and anti-poverty agency CEO Wes Moore.
All those events speak to the change on Main Street, not just in bookstores. Some retailers rely heavily on events and services, among them Pedal Power, the large bike shop in the middle of town and the Middlesex Music Academy, as evidenced by its name. That helps the whole district. And in Middletown, institutions such as Kidcity and The Buttonwood Tree arts center add a non-food dimension to the age-old, downtown art of hanging out.
I talk with Matt Lefebvre at the music academy about having a place where people come to gather as much as shop; not during the pandemic, but he hopes the habit returns. I mention that it’s like the old knitting stores that towns used to have. Funny you say that, he says, smiling, because Middletown happens to have a knitting store right now, half a block off Main. There’s a cheese shop, too — Spread Cheese Co. I didn’t go there and pull the Monty Python routine; I’m sure they’ve heard it enough.
Even with Wesleyan students not yet back on campus, Wesleyan RJ Julia draws a decent crowd of browsers. Amy Black, the store manager, talks about coronavirus survival techniques including a tent out front in September and hefty reading recommendations over the phones and online. Book sales face obvious pressure from online competition — that was Amazon’s original business, remember — but unlike upscale men’s attire, books tended to do well in the pandemic. “They would order online and then we would do the deliveries,” Black says. And now that the store is back open, she adds, “People still call up and do curbside.”
The store, like every merchant in every downtown, sells the idea of local above all else. “We do the buying in the store, so that the person who orders our textbooks has a personal relationship with the professors,” Black says. “And it’s the same with our licensed merchandise.” Otis, pointing to one table of books, adds, “These are read — and written — by our booksellers.”
‘We’ve got to take care of Main Street’
Everywhere, even in bustling Middletown, the cry of merchants is heard: “We don’t have enough retail,” says Marc Levin, third-generation owner of Malloves Jewelers in the middle of downtown. Retail, that is, other than restaurants and takeout food.
That doesn’t mean Levin lacks faith in downtown’s future. On the contrary, he says, “I think in five years the malls will be done,” because of lease costs and crowd security. He pegs Middletown’s recent-decades upswing to the construction of a new police station right on Main Street downtown, in a new building made to look old, shared with a large restaurant.
That might have been coincidental, no one can say. Levin, pronounced le-VEEN, also thinks the pandemic will help retailers in the long run, at least in Middletown, even as it has cratered foot traffic. “This pandemic is waking up Middlesex County and saying, ‘We’ve got to take care of Main Street … going forward,’ ” Levin says. “I think it’s going to help even more.”
That fits his 25-mile radius for customers, often, like that couple from Guilford, coming from towns to the south and along the Connecticut River.
Levin is turning 60 this year and has no plans to retire from the store that employs eight, down from 12 at the pre-pandemic peak. A former baseball standout and Twilight League organizer, his father, Gerald “Buzzy” Levin, was drafted by the Brooklyn Dodgers before running the store for decades. Levin wonders what might have happened if his grandfather hadn’t died at age 44. As it was, the elder Levin started three stores and purchased Malloves from the Mallove family.
Buzzy Levin used to do promotions with the downstate Malloves, but now the two companies only share a name, as one of the New London County locations holds forth in Mystic — a storied downtown that has to battle traffic every summer.
During the pandemic, like many retailers, Marc Levin boosted online commerce greatly — even holding three QVC-style Facebook Live events in 2020, though he doesn’t love that reference when I make it. “We could do $2,500 to $3,000 in an hour,” he says.
Walk into Amato’s, across from Malloves, and in some ways, time stands still amid rows and rows of puzzles, games, dolls, stuffed animals, construction toys and train sets that come to life. But Diane Gervais, herself a lifetime fixture in the store, and one of downtown Middletown’s forces of nature, never slows down. She can tell a story about every item on every shelf.
On that weekend in March when the governor shut down the state but didn’t issue formal rules, Gervais called the state attorney general and the Department of Economic and Community Development. She wanted stores like hers to be able to offer takeout orders, and to have a few employees inside working. Both of those offices called her back. By Sunday night, when the formal orders arrived, she had her way.
And the crisis brought a surprise to a store that, as it happened, offered the kinds of goods that people wanted all the more as they hunkered down at home. “What last year oddly did was bring us even closer to customers,” Gervais said, as in-store browsing gave way to phone and FaceTime conversations.
New ideas included helping the Easter Bunny — she says that very carefully and quietly around children in the store — with baskets as that first big holiday arrived. As she speaks, I can feel the stories etching into the long history of Amato’s, and of downtown Middletown.
Her father started selling wooden toys as a teenager in his father’s plumbing and heating business. Eventually Vincent Amato had toy and hobby stores all over the state and served on the Middletown city council. Now two stores remain as separate businesses, with Gervais’ brother owning the location in New Britain. The Hardware City, a few miles up Route 9, has seen hard times in its downtown but has hopes for a revival with the CTfastrak busway to Newington, West Hartford and Hartford just a few steps from that Amato’s location.
The Easter basket story has an ending that would not happen outside of independent, local retail. “We were here working literally till 2 a.m. for a week to make it happen,” Gervais says. She asks her daughter, Caroline, for the tally of baskets. “Two hundred and twenty-five in six days,” Caroline responds. “My daughter is taking it to a new level,” Diane Gervais says.
Back to the baskets. “Our very last one was picked up at 10 o’clock or 11 o’clock on Saturday night,” Gervais recalls, “by a COVID nurse for her granddaughter’s first Easter.”
Middletown refers to its downtown as the widest Main Street east of the Mississippi River. True or not, it’s wide enough to allow for plenty of curbside retail, makeshift tents and events. There’s a good chance outdoor delivery of food and merchandise will continue when the pandemic ends completely, as it’s part of the long arc toward customer convenience.
In some downtowns, notably West Hartford and Greenwich, municipal leaders allowed the partial shutdown of whole blocks over the summer. LaSalle Road, one of the key blocks of West Hartford’s commerce district, turned into a one-way, one-lane thoroughfare to make room for restaurants to open vast carrels right on the street. There’s talk of that not ending — which seems more likely than the igloo-style indoorish outdoor dining rooms that pepper some upscale towns.
Places like Middletown and especially the towns along Route 1, such as Madison, home of the original RJ Julia, can’t easily cut off the roadways because they’re through streets. That’s a big dividing line for downtowns: If they’re on major roads, they have more traffic but it’s harder to create the sense of a town center. Busy Route 5 has not helped East Hartford, but Madison, with some gift shops and cafes, has made it work, more or less, at least in one short stretch, as has Fairfield.
Another Route 1 town, Guilford, has successfully nurtured its center away from the Post Road, around a large, square green with civic buildings on one side and commerce on the other, and with a physical change a lot of towns are adopting: The renovation of rear properties into nice restaurants, which have outdoor dining albeit overlooking a parking lot.
Old photos in various stores — most colorfully inside the quirky NoRA Cupcake Co. at the north end of Main Street — show parades and other events downtown. One picture in NoRA, labeled “Hailstorm Sept. 11, 1912,” shows huge chunks of precipitation falling and piling up on Main Street.
Middletown still hosts a half-dozen large events in a normal year, including a car show and a motorcycle rally. It’s unclear whether that’s better for retail traffic than West Hartford’s Om Street Yoga event from 2010 to 2018 — with a hiatus in 2019 and obviously in 2020 — that attracted 2,000 yoga enthusiasts, mostly women, to a closed street.
Cupcake culture takes root
Middletown can’t close streets. But then, few towns can claim anything remotely like the NoRA section — the block “North of Rapallo Avenue,” with a funky mix of Eli Cannons Taproom, the world-famous O’Rourke’s Diner (which has gone upscale), the NoRA Cupcake Co., the New Hope Bible Way Church and other attractions. A vacancy in a key corner storefront hurts, but the large Community Health Center Inc. headquarters draws in a lot of traffic.
NoRA, with a side room that doubles as a sort of museum (Area 700 Cupcake Lab, with images of skeleton bakers in suits) has become a statewide attraction, which, of course, any Main Street needs and no civic planners can hatch. The business has come and gone and come back again at West Hartford’s Blue Back Square, speaking of instant, mixed-use downtowns — most recently with a wintertime pop-up location.
Audrey LaRosa, selling cupcakes at NoRA, describes a close relationship among people on that block but adds, “We collaborate with a lot of the businesses downtown.” I hear that in virtually every establishment.
Cupcakes, by the way, were hot before the pandemic and now all the more so, as they’re naturally small-group pastries. On the other end of Main Street, a competitor — artisan bread and pastry-maker Cake, Batter & Roll — opened on a side street in February, expanding from a food truck. That’s the thing about the food business that keeps growing even in a revenue crisis. It’s driven by exuberance, if not the irrational exuberance that former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan famously said of the stock markets.
On a quiet evening, Sherab Gyaltsen and his wife work alone in their 9-year-old Tibetan Kitchen restaurant near the NoRA block. He says the place is down 50 percent during coronavirus, and can only do takeout, for the most part.
Gyaltsen was not involved in the Tibetan goods store that anchored the NoRA block when his restaurant opened, though people tend to assume he was. As a restaurant owner, he’s glad Middletown’s eating options have expanded because, he says, many customers come to town and then decide where to eat. “We’re not going to close,” he says.
Surviving and thriving
The traditional view of Middletown holds that the south end of Main Street, with a green at the far end of downtown and the oldest retailer, Smith & Bishel hardware, was the sort of civic section. The old Middletown Press building was there before it was razed in favor of a now-vacant Rite Aid pharmacy. Then the heart of downtown, with upscale restaurants and retail; then in the North End, commerce mixed with social services such as soup kitchens and a street life that scares off some suburbanites. All of that works together to make for a small city with far more urban energy than we’d expect from its size, like Northampton, Massachusetts, another college town with a thriving retail scene — now including cannabis.
But Jennifer Alexander, the Kidcity impresario, whose husband, Mark Masselli, founded Community Health Center Inc. as a storefront clinic in 1972, insists that the old view is obsolete. The evidence: Right in that same North End, two partners have opened an expensive, locally sourced restaurant and a “pizza bar.” It’s Only Natural, a food market with its roots as an organic co-op, is still there, now catering to Whole Foods-type clientele without the corporate culture.
Is this another story of gentrification? It doesn’t have that feel. “There are a lot of people in Connecticut who want to be in a diverse environment and they’re not all poor,” Alexander says.
If she’s right, then the North End represents a stable, non-transitional, racially and economically integrated commercial neighborhood. Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven have had places somewhat like that, but in smaller cities and towns, it’s rare and could become a model for places like Derby and Ansonia building toward growth.
Alexander is part of a small group working hard to make all this happen. Through Downtown Middletown, the business district, she spearheaded the creation of 25 colorful “storysigns” affixed to streetlight poles. Each one tells the story of a merchant active on Main Street now. “I wanted to tell these stories because I wanted us to see ourselves so we don’t lose it,” Alexander says. “We are a place that is diverse and also surviving, sometimes thriving.”
At the Tibetan restaurant, where I have the amazing lentil soup, Gyaltsem translates a saying in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. “If there’s ways to overcome that problem, there’s no use getting worried.”
Still, people downtown don’t take for granted that the place is a giant, finely tuned engine — meaning, they worry. Some worry that offices left vacant by the pandemic won’t fill up. “I worry,” says Alexander, who lives with Masselli in a historic house a few steps from the main intersection downtown, “that people don’t understand how important the health of downtown is.”
A nature that nurtures
In 35 years in retail, Dottie Smith has seen a handful of commercial districts. She started selling handmade wreaths and floral arrangements at the Durham Fair, then opened a gift store in that town called Favorite Things. She sold that and opened A Pocketful of Posies and moved to Block Island, later opening in Essex.
After 14 years in Essex, Smith moved A Pocketful of Posies five years ago to Middletown, where she grew up, where she’s now one of 15 establishments in the Main Street Market, a converted, renovated department store. “And you know what, people follow you. All my old customers are still here,” Smith says, after working with a customer from Wethersfield who wanted a permanent floral arrangement for her front door.
She’s got a little bit of everything, some gourmet items on one end of the odd-shaped store. We talk about Middletown compared with Essex. “You would think we would have done better there,” she says. But after a trial period in Middletown, “It turns out that Middletown was kicking Essex’s butt big time.”
That’s partly because Essex, like Block Island, is seasonal — “From a retailer’s point of view you’ve got 10 weeks to make a living” — and partly because Middletown is central, and nurtures its merchants. She credits Larry McHugh and the chamber, and Downtown Middletown.
Her customer, JoDee Krejmas, whose children are grown, says she comes to Middletown at least once a month. Her husband wants to bring his sister there because they grew up in Greenfield, Massachusetts, which used to look like Middletown. The lack of women’s apparel, a staple of downtown shopping until the ’90s? “I don’t care about that,” she says.
There’s just no way to generalize when it comes to the magic that makes downtown retail come together. That may be a lesson — that there is no clear road map from one place to another. “I have yet to figure out retail,” Smith says as we talk about what sells and what doesn’t. “You never figure it out; it’s constantly changing.”
‘We all have a responsibility’
Dottie Smith credits her landlord, Michael Stone, who developed the Main Street Market, for not forcing her to sign a lease until she was settled in.
Stone says he liked Smith’s store and thought it would add to his mix. “We recognize that the marketplace for retail these days is primarily for mom-and-pop operators and we appreciate them more than other people might,” says Stone, whose firm, Stone Point Properties, also owns commercial property in West Hartford Center.
He talks about simpler leases and taking risks on tenants, but rebuffs the idea that his flexibility with tenants is the key. “In certain cases I can be more flexible than in other cases,” he says. “If you talk to certain tenants that I asked to leave in the past, they would say I’m not flexible.”
He rejects more tenants than he accepts, he says, and that leaves him with an eclectic mix including the Man Cave, a small store full of all sorts of stuff from helicopter clocks to cigars. “It’s an urban mall that’s thriving and it surprises even myself,” Stone says. In the end, that surprise element in a town center seems a big part of the spark that makes the whole bigger than the sum of the parts.
Stone recalls his mother taking him to Middletown from their hometown, Cheshire, to buy jeans at Bob’s Surplus, which started in Middletown and became Bob’s Stores. It was not a strong connection. “When I came here 15 years ago I had no clue that I would fall in love with the city of Middletown,” he says.
He recently reached out to a new landlord and offered to help. “He’ll be renovating a building and creating competitive space, but I believe the gravity to downtown will counteract any kind of competition he’s going to create,” Stone says. “We all have a responsibility.”
Then he names the pieces of the puzzle. McHugh at the chamber; the Downtown Middletown association; merchants and landlords helping one another; city department heads, all of them, trying to make it easier, not harder for businesses; destination retailers making events happen. “The collaboration of all those entities,” he says, “is why downtown works.”