Sean Maher: Retail can still thrive in Boulder

While it makes attention grabbing headlines, the ongoing narrative in the media that traditional retail is dying just is not true. Here is one example from Boulder to make my point.

Back in the fall of 2017, Starrs Clothing at 1630 Pearl St. closed after more than 100 years in business. At the time, many lamented the loss as one more sign that brick-and-mortar retail was fading away and that downtown would soon be littered with more empty storefronts.

Indeed there was not much interest in the empty space over the winter and it looked like the naysayers could be right. In late spring, I approached the landlord, Unico Properties, and asked if they would allow the Downtown Boulder Foundation to open a pop-up retail store at a reduced rent. They responded with an enthusiastic “yes” and we suddenly had to figure out what to do with a 5,000-square-foot space.

On a whim, we called Open Studios to see if they wanted to partner with us and manage a temporary art gallery. Luckily, they also said “yes” and a few short weeks later the Pop! Gallery opened as a showcase for local artists. Pop! was so successful over the summer that Unico generously allowed us to keep the space and run the gallery through the holiday season.

One of the artists who benefitted from showing his work at Pop! was Rob Lantz, a local photographer. Rob moved to Boulder a few years ago and had always wanted to open a gallery to sell his photos as well as other local art. But he had no way to know if his idea would work and was hesitant to take the risk.

Pop! changed all that. It gave Rob the opportunity to gauge traffic downtown and get an idea how well his photos as well as other art would sell in the Boulder market. His experience there convinced him that a permanent gallery could work. So when Pop! closed after the holidays, he started looking for a location.

And this brings us to 2027 Broadway, another downtown retail space that had been empty since Oliverde closed back in January 2017. Rob ed the landlord who made him a very reasonable offer and they quickly negotiated a three-year lease. Rob‘s dream of owning a downtown gallery finally came true. He opened R Gallery on March 1 and, true to his mission, the venue features all local art with an emphasis on reasonable prices. The tagline for R Gallery is “Fine art for everyone.”

Rob‘s goal is to always have two shows going with five to six featured artists on display. He‘ll participate in First Fridays and hold monthly receptions to give patrons a chance to meet local artists. The grand opening will be March 30 to coincide with the kickoff of Boulder Arts Week.

Rob‘s story is one of many that shows traditional retail is not becoming extinct. Yes there are strong headwinds but creativity and passion along with a willing landlord can overcome those challenges. So kudos to Unico Properties for letting us use their empty space as well as to Open Studios for running Pop! and giving local artists a place to show their work. And congratulations to Rob for taking the plunge and opening a permanent gallery downtown when many said it couldn‘t or shouldn‘t be done.

By the way, the space that Pop! vacated won‘t be empty for long. The local Patagonia store has been so successful that the company is taking over the space ,as well as the former Moongate Bistro next door, to more than double its brick-and-mortar space. They hope to be open this summer. More proof brick-and-mortar retail is far from dead.

And the Downtown Boulder Foundation is once again working with Open Studios to bring the Pop! Gallery back to Pearl Street for the 2019 summer season. Who knows? Maybe another smart young artist will get inspired and use the pop-up experience to make their dreams a reality.

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