Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Saturday On Main Street

Over the weekend, I was trying to remember the last time I strolled along Main Street downtown. I mean, more than a 1 or 2-shop stop at a store or restaurant. It was probably over 40 years ago when I used to go downtown with my mom on Saturday mornings.

She'd get her hair done in a little salon on Penn, then we'd walk down to Main and go right, toward Pagel's Shoes, the New York Store and the Charming Shoppe (where she bought all my Sunday dresses). Or we'd go left to Chatlins Department Store. Sometimes we did the whole stretch. We'd end up back in the middle--lunch at Grants 5-and-10 (best hotdogs in the world, on buttered rolls, with Hires draft root beer), plus they had a public phone so we could call my dad to come get us.

When I told people I was going downtown for Small Business Saturday, most of them said, "What for? There aren't any businesses down there anymore." Still, last Saturday morning, Robin Parker (some of you know her as the head of the Dragon Boat Club) and I started at Jus' Java on Swede and walked down to Main. Our intention was to let businesses know about the Norristown Business Association and maybe get their thoughts on bringing life back to the downtown.

Let me add that I can now personally recommend Jus' Java's caramel hot cocoa and berry blend black tea. Today (Tuesday) is their grand re-opening. Discounts between 10 and noon. They're open until 5 pm. Go check out their new space.

Anyway, at Main Street, we went left to Cherry, crossed Main and came back down the street on the other side, walking almost down to Arch Street, where we crossed again and came back up to Swede. And on the way we stopped in most of the businesses who were open and didn't look too, too busy.

Yes, that's right. We DO have businesses downtown, and some--like the barber shops--had so many patrons that we didn't feel right interrupting them.

There are more businesses than I expected. Most are small eateries, and many of them Mexican cuisine, though they all seem to offer different variations. They're all brightly painted, neat and clean inside, and inviting. Their cooking aromas are all enticing. They all had a decent number of patrons (to be honest, it was the lunchtime). Ditto for the other eateries we stopped at, like Main Street Cafe. In a 4-block area, we've already got Vietnamese, Ethiopean, Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, Southern and American cuisine. We could market Main Street as our International Dining District. Then add Italian, Greek, Thai, Middle Eastern, Indian, etc. And an ice cream place.

We also stopped at old established businesses like Baer's Furniture and Zummo's Hardware. They weren't so busy. It's a shame, because they're really nice people, offer great products, and they've been faithful to Norristown for decades.

Everyone who volunteered their opinions mentioned that parking was the worst problem. For stores selling heavy things like furniture, rock salt, etc., loading trucks or cars in front of their places is difficult. I've found that business district parking isn't a problem that Municipal Hall has been willing to talk about, but it seems to be key to bringing commerce back to the community. We can't simply expect visitors to be willing to pay for parking--not when there's free parking to be had at area malls and in surrounding towns. We can't expect our businesses to thrive only on weekends, when parking is free on the streets. We're in competition with other shopping areas. We're in competition with online stores. We need to make our districts more inviting, more unique, more fun, and VERY easy to visit, EVERY DAY OF THE WEEK.

The other problem is looks. Some of the buildings, like the little cafes and Cullen & Conwell law offices have gotten facelifts and look great. Many need a little work or just some powerwashing of the dingy pavements and bricks. The borough's trash cans need to be emptied more often. Codes needs to nudge owners into fixing things like dilapidated fencing. But it was heartening to see construction permits on a couple empty buildings, with workers busy inside.

These aren't insurmountable problems. I think we just need to brainstorm a bit and find some creative solutions.

Afterwards we stopped for lunch at Casa Bonita International Cuisine on Dekalb and Oak Sts.--another gem of a restaurant that no one seems to know about. They're known for their fish tacos. I recommend the Korean kochoo chop chae (pictured). Yummy.

Certainly, Main Street wasn't thriving this year for Small Business Saturday, but it gave me hope for the future.

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