Church Street: Burlington’s Playground

On an early Autumn outing down to Church Street Marketplace, I switched off my iPod. Autumn is a calming season – it is much more cleansing to walk downtown without guitar riffs and bass beats jamming the ears. Only when you remove the headphones will you notice the sounds of community, and then you’ll become attuned to all of the sights, sounds, and smells of Church Street – the wifts of cinnamon apple cider, kettle corn, the bustling October Saturday morning farmers market – that entice you near and convince you to stick around awhile.

Strolling along Church Street, the sights and sounds are limitless. Not only are shoppers chatting, reading books and walking their dogs, but there are always performers of various talents and a range of ability that runs from near perfection to nails on a chalkboard. Just yesterday, we were down on Church Street, absorbing the atmosphere and stopped to watch two performers within the four blocks of the Marketplace. One of them — a 23-year-old touring juggler from Minnesota — drew a crowd of around fifty. When he had finished his grand finale and blew out his flaming torch, he set out a tip bucket and free postcards. I didn’t see any of the onlookers drop change in his bucket, but rather they offered him food – brownies, sandwiches. At first I thought this was a little weird, but when I thought about it, I realized that that’s just how people here are. Offering a good bite to eat is a much more caring and personal gesture than tossing a bunch of loose change from the bottom of your purse into his bucket.

In the time it takes to eat a sandwich at one of the outdoor tables on Church Street, one can see an eclectic assortment of fun-loving oddballs of all shapes and sizes. Last week I saw a bearded twenty-something in camoflage shorts carrying a 12-pack of Magic Hat in one hand and a fishing pole in the other, followed by a girl in Tevas and a matching red shirt and sock combo making an attempt at riding a long-board while rocking out to her iPod and singing along to her own tune. My street-side meal was periodically interrupted by two fellows in a pint-sized, beat-up car using a megaphone to dispense their words of wisdom on the general Burlington population. Maybe this is the type of ebullient small-town energy that City Hall Economic Development Specialist Ed Antczak explained is the source of Burlington’s thriving central business district. In a recent interview he told the Vermont Cynic that newcomers are often blown away by the level of activity going on downtown. Despite the fact that Burlington is not a large city, according to Ed, it has a “vibrant commercial center” and social scene.

Church Street is a unique place. I have never seen four blocks of a city street that embodied community the way that Church Street does. Everywhere you look, you see people running into friends, aquaintances, teachers. On Church Street, you feel connected to each and every person who lives in Burlington and there seems to be an understanding in this city that we’re all here together, so we might as well just sit down on a park bench and chat. It can all be summed up by the copper sculpture of a young boy and girl playing leap-frog: playful, active — a sort of playground, if you will, for those too old for the monkey bars. With its many eateries, coffee shops and retail stores, Church Street is a wonderful place to just simply hang out. It’s funny how often I hear a friend ask a friend “Where are you off too?” and the response is just “Church Street.” It’s a place you can go with no set plan of action. That’s because the reason that Church Street is such a fun, energetic place is the atmosphere. This past week we decided to find out from local business owners what made them set up shop downtown and what it’s really like to operate a storefront in the Church Street Marketplace. What follows is a brief look at some of the most recently opened businesses in the downtown central business district.

The first thing you notice when you walk into Maven – the new skate clothing shop on Cherry Street – is its big city feel. The space is not large, but it feels that way because of the setup. Clothing racks line the walls and there is only one table display in the whole shop, which gives it that roomy feel. The colorful shoes, clothing and skateboards are accented with painted boards hanging on the walls and a pair of painted skate shoes displayed on a shelf. Brendan Foster and his girlfriend, the owners of Maven, are first-time business owners who seem to have a good handle on their new venture which is in the building that formerly was home to the B Side, a skate and snowboard store for which Brendan used to make purchases and manage. Upon first impression, I would never have guessed that the laid-back guy in ripped jeans, a backwards cap and skate shoes was the owner, but it works for Brendan because it fits in at Maven. He is exactly the sort of person who can relate to customers and make a high-end skateshop like Maven work in Burlington. He told the Vermont Cynic that once the idea of opening a shop got rolling, he and his girlfriend did a lot of research on running a business and had a detailed game plan.

When they applied for a loan at a bank, the main thing the bank looked at was location, which, according to Brendan, “goes a long way when someone’s lending you money.” Location is one of Maven’s strong-points because B Side’s success in the past has already proven that the area is a prime spot for a skate store. The bank also looked at what the B Side took in annually; it helps that the location used to house a skate shop – the same type of business.

Modeled in part on a Cambridge, Massachusetts skate shop called Concepts, Maven targets the 18 to 35 demographic, focusing mostly on fashion. Brendan explains that they wanted to capture the lifestyle of skateboarding and snowboarding, not just sell equipment. With a small wall of skateboards, Maven carries mostly clothing, including seventy-five to eighty dollar Volcom jeans; “the industry is getting more involved with fashion,” Brendan said. Trends are also maturing to fit an older demographic; the industry is not just for fifteen and sixteen-year-old skaters anymore – only around 10 percent of the shoppers at Maven actually skate and about 60 percent are women. “You gotta present this stuff to everyone,” says Brendan. When asked about owning a small business in Burlington, he said that Burlington is progressive and has a great art scene to which skating is strongly tied and he believes that Burlington receives it well.

Another new business on Church Street is Zinnia, a jewelry store next to the Burlington Town Center mall. Zinnia opened in June and has a bright, artsy atmosphere. Everywhere you look there is jewelry, and it’s not expensive. The owners, Jen Kurani and Keha McIlwaine are graduates of Bennington College and for what they lack in experience in the business sector, they more than make up for with youthful enthusiasm, hard work, and dedication to learning what it takes to operate a successful store.

They told the Cynic that Jen’s dad is a great resource, having been in the business for more than thirty years, and can offer advice and moral support. Both Jen and Keha studied art to some degree and they say that so many aspects of art and fashion go into running their business. They wanted to open a shop with accessible prices and “have a space for local artists.”

Jen and Keha seem to love Burlington; when deciding where to open their business, the most important thing was where they wanted to live, and they wanted to live in Burlington. “Burlington is a really vital town,” says Jen, also explaining that the most unique challenge of all in Burlington is that there are so many educated customers. She adds that with such educated customers it is a wonderful challenge to try to be as knowledgable and helpful as possible. While they say “you have to take each season as it comes,” it seems that they are pleased with the amount of foot traffic on Church Street.

In fact, this summer they actually had to hire extra employees because the customer flow was pleasantly much higher than they had originally estimated. When asked about the high small business taxes in Vermont, they simply stated that you just have to work them into your business plans. Jen also said that they spend so much time at the shop that “you have to love it and you have to love being here” and Keha chimed in, “when you love it, you don’t care about the time.” There are also many seasoned small business owners who are veterans to the Church Street scene. Frank Bouchett, owner of Homeport, has owned his store for twenty-two years. Formerly operated as a franchise of Pier One, Frank began taking a more independent route with his store than the national corporate business and he decided to make the split from Pier One this summer. His new store, which operates under the name Homeport has been up and running for a few months. Mr. Bouchett started out in business with a degree in retail marketing from the University of Texas at Austin and has worked for Pier One on and off for the past forty years.

He was trained as a manager and went on to open similar stores in Canada, called Import Bazaar, which merged with and was later bought out by Pier One Canada. Searching for the next place to open a store, Mr. Bouchett says he and his wife, who is also his business partner, were drawn here by the ambiance, local amenities and good schools. “Burlington was the place to do it,” he says, explaining that it’s a wonderful place to do business, with a wonderful atmosphere and a lot of foot traffic. If Mr. Bouchett had one complaint, I think it would be the high taxes on small businesses – businesses in Vermont pay the regular taxes plus twenty percent. “Vermont is not a particularly pro-small business state,” he says and adds “they love taking control of the Marketplace.” But, despite complaints about the heavy taxes, Frank still thinks that Church Street is a great place to do business.

It’s the positive energy, the opportunity to run into friends and classmates, the chance to grab a tasty snack or sit down to a delicious meal and a few drinks that keep people coming back to Church Street and make it a vibrant and exciting place to hang out — and from what we learned — also a great place to do business. Where else can you window shop in high-end specialty stores and then step onto the street to enter into a conversation with a local celebrity like “The Birdman” who rides a bicycle and trailer adorned with a colorful medley of junk-art sculpture creations? Where else can you relax reading a book by day in a quietly energetic and inviting atmosphere, only to return hours later to a rowdy and raucous rip-rocking ruffian-rowsing Red-Square raiding, wild-style nightlife? That’s Church Street. And that’s just the kind of place we live in.