Tough times are everywhere. All you have to do is drive down Palmer Avenue in Larchmont, and you will see about thirteen empty storefronts where long time community businesses once flourished.
Mamaroneck Village also has empty storefronts, but on most of them are building permits advertising construction on a new venture coming to town. Village officials like to say that Mamaroneck Avenue has become a "destination" spot thanks to its new international eateries like La Herradura and Haiku.
Why the struggle of one village and the success of another?
Walking up and down "The Avenue," as the Mamaroneck thoroughfare is known locally, you may only notice the plethora of restaurants and pizza joints. Look closer and you'll also see businesses that have been there for decades: Ralph's Electrical Appliance Co., Miller's Toys, Mamaroneck Playhouse and Main Hosiery and Lingerie.
Walk up and down Palmer Avenue in Larchmont, and you will surely notice the brown paper covering once popular stores and boutiques: Lorilyn, Luggage Stop, Active Sports, Michou, D&G Salon, Excessorize, to name a few. But you will still find niche stores like Wendy Gee!, Stitch by Stitch Needlepoint Gallery, Szent & Co. Fragrance Bar/Apothecary and quite a few art galleries.
While Mamaroneck seems to be faring better, business is still difficult for small, independent shops. Mamaroneck resident Nancy Rosenberger runs the Quilt Cottage at 414 Mamaroneck Ave. She will be closing her shop's doors after six years in business this summer. Rosenberger noted that "the dollars never changed from the beginning." There wasn't enough interest in town for a small community fabric/sewing store when people can have a much bigger selection online. When asked if the restaurants helped with foot traffic, Nancy said, if anything, it "hurts a little." Parking is harder because now people are taking spaces for two hours to eat instead of running in and out of stores, she explained.
In contrast, Mary Reed of Main Hosiery and Lingerie, 263 Mamaroneck Ave., says her store is doing great because being in business for fifty years is about "serving the public. They want to be able to come in and be served and fitted properly." That is one aspect you don't get when ordering online. According to Ms. Reed, the Mamaroneck Chamber of Commerce is very strong and fosters community and business development together. Hung by the store's entrance is a bulletin board filled with local business cards and flyers advertising community and charitable events in and around the village.
One theory Reed and Rosenberger have is that Mamaroneck is a village where everyone can shop for everyday items. Among all the chic and exotic new restaurants are basic retail shops. And while Larchmont also has excellent restaurants, some residents feel there is not enough variety among the other stores. Jill Breen, mother of two, feels that there just isn't any place that a rushed parent who only has minutes to shop can go to buy the basics – a tee shirt, a pair of shoes. She also wonders why the Larchmont Village government isn't creating incentives to attract new stores.
David Nadelson, of Aroma on Palmer Avenue in Larchmont, feels that the recession woke people up to the realities of prices and the Internet. All of a sudden, he said, residents realized that they were paying a lot for little variety. Nowadays, what small neighborhood store with limited inventory of non-essentials can compete with Overstock.com or Amazon, where items are cheaper and get shipped to your door within a couple of days for free? Maybe restaurants are the key to attracting patrons and new businesses in town, he added. Everyone is willing to spend money to treat themselves to a dinner.
But is Larchmont struggling because of lack of variety?
Parking is a problem in both villages, although Mamaroneck recently moved business owners and employees to permit-only spaces in back of the stores so they would not take up space on the avenue. Jeff Rosenberg, Larchmont Chamber of Commerce president, is disappointed that his village has decided to change the current two-hour parking limit back to one hour. "How can someone go out to eat and shop for only one hour?" he asked. He intends to discuss this issue with the Traffic Commission.
According to Jennifer Graziano of the Mamaroneck Chamber of Commerce, new businesses are willing to "hang their hat" on Mamaroneck Avenue because the restaurants have proven to be successful and flourishing.
"The Chamber here is strong and offers a great support system," she added. And while Ms. Graziano doesn't think the rents are cheap, she does estimate that they are about five to ten percent less than her "neighbors to the north and south of us."
According to Nadelson, some landlords are asking anywhere from four to ten thousand dollars per month in rent in Larchmont. They don't have to budge on their high asking price, he said, because they make money from the apartments above the retail shops. Rosenberg agreed, and added that some of the buildings have second generation owners who may have very small mortgages or none at all.
With new Mayor Josh Mandell in town, Jeff Rosenberg hopes that communication between business owners and the village will improve. He has heard from a new tenant on Boston Post Road that he had "nice cooperation from the village." "Working aggressively," Mr. Rosenberg has been discussing with surrounding villages the strategies and building codes they implement to attract new tenants. He even asked Larisa Ortiz Associates, advisors in commercial district revitalization, to submit a proposal to Mandell. According to their Web site, this is the company that worked with the New Rochelle Business Improvement District initiative on 'niche retail analysis.'
Another idea Rosenberg has is to hire a "point person" within the chamber to work on attracting new businesses and to be available to liaise between new tenants, village government and the Building Department. In Bronxville, he said, this is a position paid for through the chamber.
Nadelson noted that in his eighteen years in business, he has seen "businesses change [in Larchmont] to reflect the needs and wants of the society." Larchmont may still be figuring out what those needs are, while Mamaroneck seems to have found the key to not only surviving the recession, but being successful in spite of it.