After 19 years of purveying bizarre statues, 19th-century ornamentation and religious icons, Gargoyles Grotesques and Chimeras is leaving Newbury Street for good.
"We are essentially invisible," says Louis Gordon, surrounded by boxes in his half-dismantled store. Gargoyles closed this month due to diminished popularity and pressure from the building’s landlord. "Certain people at some point were able to see the invisible. Now, the curiosity has declined."
The store defied convention with a dark atmosphere (four naked light bulbs), eerie music (including a 76-minute classical piece called the "Anatomy of Melancholy") and—a rarity on Newbury—an ambiguous relationship with consumerism.
"It’s a museum if you don’t buy anything. It’s a store if you do. It’s not retail as it’s presented out there," Gordon says, motioning to the street outside.
The Newbury Street where Gordon opened his store in 1989 is not the one that exists today, with eight blocks of high-end couture, salons, boutiques, restaurants, galleries and specialty stores.
Though the people-watching is predictable—first dates, girls tottering on high heels, locals walking their labradoodles and Europeans making out like thieves thanks to the weak dollar—the retail landscape itself has experienced significant changes. In the past two years, Newbury Street increasingly resembles Everymall America.
Kate Quinn, chief administrator of the Newbury Street League, a nonprofit association devoted to promoting, maintaining and beautifying the street, says the arrival of bigger chain stores has some independent businesses worried.
"There’s always some concern that people come to Newbury because they want a different kind of shopping experience," she says, noting the street is traditionally a home for small, unique boutiques.
While chain retailers on Newbury are nothing new—Gap and Burberry have been there since the 1980s—most locations were, until recently, medium-sized.
But the Newbry building—a 10-story construction that spans Boylston, Newbury and Clarendon streets—has housed a growing conglomeration of chain stores in recent years. When H&M signed a 10-year, 20,000-square-foot lease there in the spring of 2006, it became one of the largest stores on the street. It’s wedged next to Filene’s Basement, a 38,000-square-foot store, and Borders, a 24,000-square-foot space, which both appeared in the fall of 2006.
The average retail space on the street is around 1,000 square-feet, says Tom Brennan, a broker at C. Talanian Realty, which specializes in Newbury real estate. Vacancy on the street is at an all-time low and rents are correspondingly high. Depending on the size, location and particulars of the space, prices range from $65 per square foot to $200 per square foot.
Brennan says international companies recognize Newbury as a key location for marketing brands.
Zara, a clothing chain from Spain, will open in the former Armani Café site. The clothier gained fame in the fashion world for its advantage in turn-around time: it can manufacture and deliver clothing lines to the sales floor in two weeks. In a normal year, Zara launches approximately 11,000 new items.
Only a block away, Matsu is on the opposite end of the retail philosophy spectrum. Matsu is a women’s boutique that’s been on Newbury Street for 12 years and, like many independents, it has a distinctive character. Christopher Forte, the manager of Matsu, says every item in the store is handpicked by him or the owner, Dava Muramatsu. He dismisses the suggestion that Zara and other chains are competitors, referring to their wares as "fast-food fashion."
"They’re quickly produced, quickly worn, quickly thrown away," he says.
Forte has worked on Newbury on and off for the past 20 years, and he’s noticed a change. "The exclusivity of the street was really charming," he says. "It’s beginning to look like fashion centers in New York, like SoHo and Madison Avenue, where you see independent next to chain, next to independent, next to CVS."
Brennan says that though the average space on Newbury was around 1,000 square-feet, many are 400-600 square-feet, and national retailers would not be interested in such small spaces, which suggests there will always be space for independents.
Some smaller boutiques hold their own by playing to niche markets. Trident Booksellers, a 23-year-old independent business, was the only bookstore on the street until Borders opened.
Michael Lemanski, general manager of Trident, says when Borders moved in, he paid close attention to sales. "They didn’t change," he says.
Trident boasts an award-winning newsstand and an extensive selection of travel, Eastern religion and Jungian psychology books. Lemanksi says these elements helped set his store apart. "We have professionals, tourists, students as customers," he says. "We haven’t been pigeonholed into any one category over the years. Everyone can be comfortable here." He feels Trident owes its success to this unique atmosphere.
But back inside of Gargoyles, Louis Gordon lamented the changed face of Newbury Street.
"It’s all about expensive products and wealthy people now. There’s another side of it," he said. "To me, it’s always been a place of art."