A display in Mango. (Photo by Jacqueline Weiss)

by Jacqueline Weiss

Shopping in Chestnut Hill is known for being easy. Walk down one street and you can find almost anything you would ever need. Whether it’s clothes, food, decorations for your home or children’s toys, you can probably find it in Chestnut Hill.

Since the economic downturn began several years ago, though, Chestnut Hill’s reputation has been harmed by retail closures and vacancies. Walk down a block and you will most likely see the all too familiar “For Rent” sign.

Perhaps the largest segment affected by the turnover is clothing. With large businesses like Express, Express Men and Talbots having left Chestnut Hill, many shoppers are wondering whether these vacancies will be adequately filled.

According to Eileen Reilly, the retail recruiter for the Chestnut Hill Business Association, one of her biggest challenges is the size of these vacancies.

“I am a matchmaker,” Reilly said, “and I try to find the best placement for these independent new retailers. However, independents can and will not fill 5,000 square feet. I have a pipeline of interested retail with no real match.”

While the state of shopping on the Hill remains somewhat uncertain for the time being, Reilly remains focused on bringing Hillers the best possible new retail opportunities and will continue to do so through the retail-recruiting program.

“I have three main areas of focus,” she said, “and all will improve the pedestrian shopping experience. First, recruiting great, independent retail to the Avenue. This is a task that requires relationship building and time. I focus on this every day.

“Second, helping the present businesses to remain a magnet for shoppers, particularly the ‘freshman class’ of retailers that came in with the retail-recruiting program. I am lucky to have gotten to know these retailers quite well and am so vested in their success.

“Finally, I am a marketer by nature, so I have tried to help Chestnut Hill have a louder ‘voice’ beyond Germantown Ave.”

As important as fostering newcomers is to retail on the Avenue, family-run and owned businesses like Chestnut Hill Cheese Shop, Killian’s Hardware, Chestnut Hill Camera Shop, Robertson’s and are the backbone of the close-knit community feeling that has been fostered in Chestnut Hill over the years. Several longtime independent clothing retailers who deal a lot in clothing are optimistic that this kind of independent spirit can work for them, too.

At stores like Artisans on the Avenue, Mango, Quelque Chose, and El Quetzel – all independent operations – you can find affordable urban clothes, jewelry and home decorations, but you can also find higher-end brands such as Lily Pullitzer, Vineyard Vines and Eliza B.

Lisa Webb Howe, co-owner of Artisan’s on the Avenue, said that in the 10 years she has been in business, “The customer has grown to be more discerning.”

“We offer more for our customers, such as layaway,” Howe said, “and more attention to detail. There is more ‘local’ for local business, which could prevent big box stores such as Wal-Mart entering.”
Howe said she believes Chestnut Hill is a popular shopping destination and will remain that way for a few reasons.

“It’s very quaint,” Howe said. “We have a lot of history. It’s a small close-knit community. There aren’t a lot of chain businesses. It’s unique that you can walk anywhere and do anything. There is lots happening for such a small town.”

Tara Alexander,  owner of Mango, said that over the 23 years she has been in business, the biggest change other than moving locations for her has been seeing Chestnut Hill take a major upswing, a turn for the better over the past several months.

What’s the Hill’s secret?

“Personal service, attention to detail and it’s a beautiful city escape,” Alexander said.

What Alexander would most like to see happen to kep that upswing going is more to draw in outsiders.

“I’d like to see more specialty events to draw people in and show them what we can offer,” she said. “Whether it’s clothes, or food, nothing can ruin Chestnut Hill.”

Owners like Alexander and Howe are being very proactive in trying to meet customers’ needs, offering trendy and current pieces that you can incorporate into your wardrobe.

For instance, at Mango you can find vintage inspired dresses, crochet tops and shrugs, all of which are very in style for summer. At Artisans, you can find something for the kid in you like snap bracelets, which bring back memories of the nineties, and Mighty Wallets, which are tear, water, and stain resistant as well as eco-friendly and seem to be doing extremely well at the store.

While the economic downturn may have caused considerable concern for business owners and the Chestnut Hill Business Association, a Facebook poll of Chestnut Hill teens and young adults revealed that there wasn’t a large amount of worry about the status of shopping in Chestnut Hill among their age group.

Many stated that when they’re in Chestnut Hill, it’s less about shopping and more about socializing, and that they would rather see more unique businesses than chain stores.

One local student said, “Chestnut Hill is fun, but I come here to hang out with friends mostly.”

“We don’t want any more chain stores,” she added. “More stores like what we have now would be nice.”

Although the future of shopping on the Hill is difficult to determine, one thing on which people ranging from storeowners, teenagers and those at the Chestnut Hill Business Association can agree is that Chestnut Hill offers something for everyone, and that will certainly never change.

And, according to retail recruiter Reilly, it will soon improve.

Reilly revealed that “there are five leases in negotiation up and down the Avenue.”

“Negotiation is not a signed lease,” Reilly said. “However, I am very optimistic that most, if not all, will be on the Avenue before the end of the year.”

She was also excited to announce a full-time apparel retailer and an exciting three-month boutique “pop-up” for the holidays.
One new store Reilly promised is Closet Boutique of Avalon, which will open for business on the 8400 block of Germantown Avenue this fall.

“Yes,” Reilly said, “the ladies of Chestnut Hill and beyond will be able to buy a really great pair of denims.”