Merchants tout Fairhaven’skid-friendly atmosphere

Newcomer Academic Outfitters thrilled with amount of families strolling the streets; others say it wasn’t always this way

Mary Gibb, owner of Academic Outfitters, recently moved her business from Cornwall Avenue to Fairhaven, and has been pleasantly surprised at the amount of families she sees making their way through the shops.

   When Mary Gibb began telling friends she was moving Academic Outfitters, a children’s education supply store she co-owns with Anne McGreevy, from Cornwall Avenue into a bigger space in Fairhaven, she received plenty of praise and encouragement.
   There was another response that she didn’t expect, however.
   “One of my friends said something like ‘Oh, I didn’t picture Fairhaven as a place for kids,’” said Gibb. “I began to wonder if a lot of other people thought Fairhaven was about nice shops you don’t bring kids into.”
   It worried Gibb a little, but those fears were quickly allayed when they opened Academic Outfitters in their new location at 909 Harris Ave. in July.
   “We haven’t been open long, but already we see a lot of children regularly walking around Fairhaven,” Gibb said. “In the case of my friend, she just didn’t realize that there were so many stores already here that are geared toward kids, from Village Books to Wild Blueberries to Bead Bazaar to The Fairhaven Candy Shoppe.”
   With Academic Outfitters settled into the new location, Gibb has begun talking with Fairhaven business owners aimed at a similar demographic to come up with ways to better market Fairhaven as a kid-friendly business district. Her initial ideas include marketing as a group and offering coupons to customers to check out the other stores available.
   “If I had one person tell me they didn’t realize the area has plenty to offer for children, I bet there are many others with a similar impression,” Gibb said. “It’s a perception we want to turn around if it is out there. We want to be a resource not only for kids, but for adults looking for quality products.”
   Gibb’s situation brings up a bigger question, however. With all of the construction and changes taking place in Fairhaven, what is the district turning into?
At this point, Fairhaven is getting a good mix of businesses attracting people of all ages, according to some Fairhaven merchants. Dave Lucas, who has operated Gallery West in Fairhaven for 34 years, said market forces have successfully created a diverse mix of businesses.
   “I see a lot more families walking around here than I did a few years ago,” Lucas said. “What is particularly striking to me is watching this shopping district mature and become more stable. Not only is there a wide variety of businesses here, but there is a lot of staying power and not much turnover.”
   Asked if Fairhaven is becoming too heavy with boutique businesses, Lucas said he didn’t think so.
   “You will find a good number of gift stores here, but there is also a lot of new restaurants and general-service businesses, like banks and grocery stores,” Lucas said. “It’s a good mix.”
   Lucas noticed Fairhaven really begin to change five years ago, when people suddenly became more interested in Fairhaven property.
   “The area had grown to a point where a critical mass was reached, and suddenly everyone wanted to jump aboard,” Lucas said.
   He added that he’s been pleased with how Fairhaven has changed. It’s an area that has become more cosmopolitan, much different from the bars and empty buildings that made up most of Fairhaven in the early years he was in business.
   “It was clear that Fairhaven was going to have a growth spurt, and it could have gone a lot of different ways — we could have had poor construction and planning, a rush of chain stores or bad elements move in and create a spike in crime,” Lucas said. “If I look realistically at the options that Fairhaven had when the growth started taking place, I couldn’t be happier with the way things have turned out.”
   Karrin Daniels, who co-owns Northland Specialties with her mother, Andrea Daniels, said they anticipated a resurgence in Fairhaven when they moved in five years ago.
   “It’s the kind of resurgence we wanted to see. There is a broad mix of people who come to Fairhaven, from older people to young families,” Daniels said.
   The timing turned out to be good for Daniels’ specialty shop. Business has grown each year they’ve been in business, although sales numbers are a bit flat so far in 2005, which she attributes to all the construction that is happening around her.
   “What is encouraging to me is all of the positive comments I hear from people who are visiting Fairhaven,” Daniels said. “It seems people are impressed with what has happened to the area, and hopefully that means they will come back to visit, or tell their friends about Fairhaven.”
   Phyllis McKee, president of the Fairhaven Association, is also upbeat about the new development taking place, especially the trend of adding more residential units to the shopping district.
   “It will enhance the area by making it a seven-day-a-week neighborhood, where there is always activity,” McKee said.
   She acknowledges that there has been some anxiety among residents because so much construction is happening at the same time, but she expects that nervousness to disappear when the projects are completed.
   “What I think developers are doing with these projects is helping maintain the continuity of what Fairhaven already is,” McKee said. “I think it will help Fairhaven in the long run. Now there is very little undeveloped land left in Fairhaven, so it would be difficult for someone to buy a bunch of property and make sweeping changes. The boundaries of Fairhaven’s character has increased, and that is a good thing.”

More change, more adjustments
   The next wave of change should occur over the next few months as condominium projects such as Harris Square are completed and people start moving into their units. From her new store location, Gibb has a front-row view of the Harris Square project, and she is looking forward to its completion.
   “One thing I think Harris Square will do is pull more people into this part of Fairhaven,” Gibb said. “But the biggest benefit for us is to be able to have many new potential customers living across the street from us.”
   Gibb has heard Harris Square will have a mix of families as well as retirees. She said both groups would be an attractive demographic to have nearby.
   “We have a lot of older people walk into the store looking for gift ideas for their grandchildren or nieces and nephews,” said Gibb. “So if we have a mix of young families and grandparents shopping in Fairhaven, I think we’ll be very successful here.”
   In the month Academic Outfitters has been in its new location, Gibb has already noticed what sells and what doesn’t.
   “We had a line of educational products meant to keep children busy while traveling that weren’t selling well when we were at Cornwall Avenue, but are flying off the shelves here in Fairhaven,” Gibb said. “We’ll have a better idea of what products do better here once school begins, so for now we’ll keep watching and making adjustments.”
   Lucas said the soon-to-be new residents will play a critical role in helping Fairhaven maintain its newfound cosmopolitan quality.
   “The condos will allow the more esoteric businesses to survive, because they will have a captive audience,” Lucas said. “If you live in a condo unit in Fairhaven, would you rather walk outside the building and do some shopping, or get into the car and go to the mall? I believe people are moving to Fairhaven because they are attracted by what the area has become, so they’ll spend their time around here.”
   For Lucas’ gallery, it’s been a situation where patience has paid off. He opened the Fairhaven gallery in 1971 because he thought eventually it would become a bustling shopping district, although it happened at a slower pace than he expected.
   “It was tough going at first because there just wasn’t enough traffic, but that’s what I was expecting,” Lucas said. “It was disappointing watching so many businesses come and go. As the years went by, however, more businesses began to stick, and that has led to the good mix of businesses you see today. It just took awhile to get over that hump.”


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