A lot has changed on Charles Street since the late ‘60s when Jack Gurnon’s father put him to work at the family business, Charles Street Supply Co.
“My brother and I started working there when we were kids – we were free labor so it was like summer camp for us,“ said Gurnon, who signed on as a full-time employee at the family hardware store, now located at 54 Charles St., upon earning his undergraduate degree from UMass in 1977.
Traffic was so bad a few years then, as Gurnon recalls, that it resulted in a logjam from about 4 to 7 p.m. each day. But when Kevin White, then Boston’s mayor and a Beacon Hill resident, changed the direction of traffic on Charles Street in 1982, it went from being the main thoroughfare through the city to the Mass, Turnpike and a somewhat seedy neighborhood that was home to a couple of adult bookstores to the haven for boutique shops and other high-end businesses that is today.
“After the change, it went back to being a neighborhood again,” Gurnon said.
Encouraged by this development, Gurnon’s father, Richard “Dick” Gurnon, and Tom Kreshaw, chairman of the Hampshire House Corporation, launched a trash collection program that repurposed whiskey barrels as garbage receptacles until the city eventually took over the task.
Charles Street businesses, meanwhile, have traditionally benefitted from what Gurnon describes as an “incredibly loyal clientele who live here and want to shop locally for that reason, to keep the neighborhood clean, quaint…and a fun place to live.”
“ Retail has always been pretty good here because it’s a nice walking street,” Gurnon said. “Especially pre-internet, people liked to walk around and shop at individual, boutique stores on Charles Street that aren’t chain stores and where they can find things no one else has, and they’re of good quality.”
Yet Charles Street hasn’t been immune to the economic downturn that the pandemic has wrought either, as evidenced by the nearly 20 businesses on the street that have shuttered since mid-March.
“A lot of stores turn over for different reasons,” Gurnon said. “It’s a lot of work working retail on this street.”
Another factor adversely contributing to the mass exodus of businesses on the street, Gurnon said, is “people simply aren’t going out anymore” while some Charles Street establishments have had difficulty updating their websites to adapt to the times
And as a hands-on proprietor of a Charles Street business himself, Gurnon said would-be business owners can expect to put in an 80-hour work-week and have “no family life.”
While some have suggested that landlords need to cut would-be retail tenants a break on rent in order for the market to recover, Gurnon, who owns the building that is home to Charles Street Supply Co., as well as a real estate broker on the second floor, views this as merely a band aid.
“That’s kind of a kneejerk reaction,” Gurnon said.” “It would be great if landlords could curtail what they’re looking for in rent, but they have taxes, insurance and other fixed costs…and the bank isn’t going to forgive them.”
Instead, Gurnon suggests the city’s meter maids could ease up by not enforcing parking restrictions so rigorously.
“A $40 parking ticket really leaves a bad taste in your mouth,” Gurnon said, “and when people get a ticket, they’re likely to turn to Amazon.”
And although Gurnon is pleased that lifting restrictions on outdoor dining has been a boon for Charles Street, he points out that the al-fresco dining season will undoubtedly end as soon as the cold weather sets in. “It’s great to see tables on the sidewalks, but once October or November rolls around, they’re going to be done,” he said.
Gurnon also implores the city to provide more assistance to small businesses that have few employees on the books, but are so integral to the character of the neighborhood.
“The Sevens [Ale House at 77 Charles St.] has been closed the whole time. They can’t reopen because of how small they are, and they’re a huge part of the neighborhood,” Guenon said. “These businesses need any relief from anywhere – the government, other big businesses, city officials, even benefactors that live close by.”
In fact, some neighbors have been so gracious, Gurnon said, as to deliberately overpay Charles Street businesses while in other instances, Good Samaritans have even handed out checks to merchants on the street.
“They need any relief from anywhere – the government, other big businesses, city officials, even benefactors that live close by,” said Gurnon of struggling Charles Street businesses. “Everyone needs to pitch in where they can.”