Earlier this week I received an email from Roger Di Paolo of Record Courier fame. Roger is a connoisseur of everything Kent and thanks to his voracious curiousity for historical facts and the stuff of Kent legends, he’s known around town as our resident historian. I’m not saying he’s historic but he’s seen a lot through the years in Kent which is why it’s encouraging to hear someone of his stature offer such a favorable review of downtown Kent. So when he sent me his testimonial for downtown Kent (which also appeared in his column in the newspaper this week) I thought it had to be shared. Enjoy.
Don’t count downtown out
Dedicated business owners tune out the naysayers, focus on customer base that appreciates what they have to offer One of my favorite Saturday afternoon activities is to drop in at Last Exit Books to hunt for treasures for my personal library even though I realize that I’ve probably amassed more books than I’ll ever live long enough to read.
My weekend visit to the downtown Kent shop added two more books to my collection, plus a vintage record album, and cost me every bit of two dollars. It also gave me a chance for some “book talk” with owner Jason Merlene, whose tastes in reading are even more eclectic than mine.
Last Exit is located on Main Street in what folks like me remember as the onetime home of McCrory’s five-and-dime. It isn’t a large store, but it is a book lover’s dream. The stock is immaculate, well-curated and reasonably priced and the owner is friendly and knowledgable.
Following my visit there Saturday, I walked across the street to the Black Squirrel Gallery and enjoyed a chat with Cass Mayfield, who relocated her gallery and frame shop to Main Street because the Mantua Street location she and her husband, Bob, have operated for years is set to be razed for the new Crain Avenue bridge. Being on Main Street actually is a homecoming of sorts for Cass, who opened her first downtown location over 20 years ago in the Kent Theatre block in the storefront where Spin-More Records is located.
Like Last Exit Books, the Black Squirrel Gallery — as well as its next door neighbor, the Kent State University Art Gallery — is another downtown Kent treasure filled with unique items for a variety of tastes.
As I left the gallery, I could see young shoppers leaving the area’s newest business, Figleaf, a clothing store geared to the college-age market. Katie Brooke Quilt Shop, next door to Figleaf, also was busy. Both are located in the beautiful new Phoenix Block constructed by Ron Burbick.
Within sight were a number of other Main Street establishments that were drawing Saturday trade, including The Works, Leander Walker’s barbershop, Kent Natural Foods and Empire. And that was just in one relatively small block.
Their very existence is proof that downtown Kent isn’t down and out. It’s alive and well on its way to the turnaround that some of us true believers have been talking about. And, to those whose shopworn mantra is that downtown Kent has “nothing to offer,” I’d reply that either they haven’t visited there in awhile or they haven’t looked hard enough.
I am old enough to remember what downtown Kent was like nearly 50 years ago, and I’d be the first to say that its early 21st Century incarnation is far different from what it used to be. But I’d be hard pressed to think of any small town that looks like it did and has the same retail mix it had in the 1960s. Times and tastes change, and the opposite of change is stagnation.
Downtown Kent really began changing in 1959, when Stow-Kent Shopping Center opened, offering residents on the city’s west side a variety of shopping opportunities — including stores such as W.T. Grant Co. and the A & P, which also were located in downtown Kent — that were closer to their homes and didn’t involve doing battle with train traffic. The opening of University Plaza in the city’s South End, which drew the Acme store out of the downtown area, offered residents on the south side a similar retail option.
The 1972 fire that devastated the historic block where Home Savings Plaza now is located dealt another blow to downtown as a retail center. The decision not to rebuild was a major turning point in the area’s fortunes and the retail exodus continued.
What remains is a collection of small, owner-operated establishments that have fulfilled the prophecy of those who foresaw a boutique-driven mix as the future of downtown Kent. And, while they may not be drawing the same clientele that frequented the area more than a generation ago, the hard-working folks who run them realize that there’s a market for what they have to offer. (The same could be said of the unfairly maligned tattoo shops, which appear to have no shortage of customers.)
Running a business isn’t easy, and running a business in a recession is a real test of faith. The hardy crew in downtown Kent has learned to tune out the voices of negativity and focused, instead, on a customer base that appreciates what they have to offer. And, based on what I could see Saturday afternoon, they’re succeeding.
There’s no denying the challenges the downtown area faces.
While Ron Burbick is remaking the face of Main Street, the old hotel up the street from his project looks like something out of Berlin in 1945. I remember covering its closing 30 years ago; it was in disgraceful condition then and the passing of time has only added to its blight.
Other properties in the area also have seen better days and, to put in charitably, could use a facelift. (And, yes, for the most part they looked a lot better in the 1960s.) But for all of the negatives, there are far more positives. Focusing on those — and encouraging the folks who are working so hard (and have put their economic futures on the line) to turn downtown Kent around — could make a difference.
Dwelling on what the downtown area lacks does a disservice to what is there. Spend an afternoon in downtown Kent. You’ll find plenty to see, do and buy.