Writing a New Story on Main Street
There is no large commuter artery that runs near the corner of 7th and Arch Streets in Perkasie, Pennsylvania. Forget the regional rail line; passenger trains haven’t run through town in decades. To get here takes intention and agency. Unless you live in the little town, you’re not likely to drive past the bright red exterior and windows full of local art at Chimayo Gallery.
Which should make the store, and the Perkasie town center itself, another case study in retail apocalypse. So why is there a thriving art gallery and gift shop in a thriving retail district in this little out-of-the-way town? That’s a great question!
The Main Street experience of shopping, dining, and strolling is so iconic that brands the likes of Disney literally recreate the experience from scratch. Smart growth and new urbanism practitioners develop infill or even whole towns, including a Main Street district. These new towns or neighborhoods rise from vacant land into existence. Walkability is becoming a bigger factor as people relocate and choose housing.
And yet many downtown centers continue to struggle to find relevance in the internet age. Brands like American Express do some things to encourage us to Shop Small. But without a good business plan and without a broader vision in a community, Main Street is easy to ignore. A shop owner who relies on a transactional approach will not survive long in this environment. And towns that offer nothing to make it easier for Main Street stores to thrive will get what they pay for.
Which brings us back to Chimayo Gallery. Launched five years ago by Alix Stoll and her wife, Priscilla Gray-Stoll, the two were steeped in the New York arts scene before “retiring” to Perkasie where they are now busier than ever. Highlighting local artists was the game plan, but the owners of Chimayo quickly realized that the brand would not survive on simply being a purveyor of local art.
Today, displaying the work of local artists and artisans (plus locally owned, nationally-known adorable textile powerhouse Eric and Christopher) is just the tip of the iceberg. They have become a vital part of the fabric of the community. Chimayo Gallery now fills a role that online retail cannot compete with: community gathering place.
On any given week, you might attend a writing workshop, rock painting, spend an evening enjoying the sounds of a local musician, or attend a fund-raiser for an organization that helps people escape human trafficking. All of this in the sleepy little out-of-the-way town of Perkasie.
To avoid the retail apocalypse, you have to do a lot more than sell stuff. Chimayo has managed to do so much more and make it look effortless. They have changed the story from retail apocalypse to becoming a community hub – providing everything an online retailer or big box store cannot: a sense of place. Where Main Street stores are thriving, there is this sense of place.
As purposeful and well-executed as Chimayo’s business plan has been, it did not occur in a vacuum. The town has been even more purposeful about taking the long-view on economic development. In Perkasie, a multi-pronged approach was needed to address the long-term effects of a fire that destroyed a major section of the downtown area back in 1988. The fire, coupled with how weirdly off the main thoroughfares the town is situated, made revitalization a challenge.
But with a perhaps presumptuous tagline of “Welcome to America’s Home Town,” along with anchor events like a car show and what the United States Congress has decreed the nation’s oldest holiday tree lighting celebration, Perkasie has developed a definite small-town vibe.
Perkasie has drawn unique stores and restaurants, bringing people in to experience a slice of Americana. There are annual events and a thriving Saturday farmer’s market. Beyond that, the town has looked to lure larger businesses, and increase the tax base and population with the judicious permitting of new construction.
Larisa Ortiz is a New York City Planning Commissioner who recently wrote about the kinds of support needed to help small businesses thrive on Main Street. These include lowering regulatory hurdles and barriers to entry for “mom and pop” stores and focus infrastructure on accessibility and walkability. Perkasie has worked at exactly these issues, and Chimayo Gallery has become a shining example of what can happen when a brand’s story and a region’s story intersect.
While the retail apocalypse is very real – with recent data pointing to online beating brick and mortar by a factor of 3:1, big thinkers like Larisa Ortiz and practitioners like Alix and Priscilla are finding a path forward by first providing access and then creating a clear sense of place that is indispensable.