The Changing Face of the Ville

When students came back to Swarthmore after the summer, a new Swarthmore village greeted them. The town is now dotted with empty buildings as several businesses either collapsed or changed locations. Although each store closed for different reasons, Borough President Tom Huestis observed, “there are more vacancies at one time than I remember for a long time.”

Several stores closed for reasons personal to the owners, according to Kathy Gerner, president of Swarthmore Town Center Inc, which is a non-profit organization focused on improving the business district. The owners of Kerri’s Kandies, a candy store, and Da Vinci’s, a café near Dunkin Donuts, closed their Ville stores to reopen in locations nearer to their homes. Cricket Way, the antique shop, closed down because the owner found that trading antiques online was more profitable.

However, Booksource, a bookstore, and the Village Restaurant both closed down because they were struggling financially. The restaurant had been open for almost thirty years. It was also a local favorite, particularly attracting senior Borough residents. Despite the loyalty of its customers, the restaurant was unable to remain competitive as the demographics of the town changed, said Scott Richardson, owner of Occasionally Yours, a sandwich and catering shop on Park Avenue.

“The Village Restaurant was there, but it had a niche it filled for older generation,” he said. “As they moved out, they had less customers, and it wasn’t the type of menu that a younger group of people would want.”

The barren storefront of The Village Restaurant.

While a handful of stores have failed, many others are seeing significant growth; in the last year, the Co-Op profits rose between 8-10%, Dunkin Donuts rose 11%, and Occasionally Yours rose 28%.

Potential tenants have already been found for all but one of the empty spaces. Since the new business will help redefine the downtown, the borough has been seeking specific types of landlords.

“What we don’t want is a lot of service providers, such as insurance offices,” said Huestis. “They don’t generate a lot of foot-traffic and economic activity. Some of that is fine, but what we’ve been trying to do is keep it retail that is interesting and appropriate to the town.”

The key for a business is to match the town’s environment, which Richardson describes as “artsy and educated”. One successful example is the new Creative Living Room, which provides creative art classes, including music, dance, drama, art, Spanish, according to its website. The borough seemed receptive to the space, according to Mayor Eck Gerner.

“I attended their opening on Saturday afternoon and it was the largest opening I can remember, other than Dunkin Donuts and the Co-Op,” he said.

Evolving as a college town

Swarthmore College students are quickly becoming a focus as potential business clientèle. Commerce in the Ville has felt the sting of the Swarthmore bubble as the campus became self-sufficient with two coffee bars, the bank, and student-run cafes.

“It’s hard to compete with the College, because it’s so convenient,” said Gerner, president of the Swarthmore Town Center. “Unless you’re coming down for dinner or Dunkin Donuts, there’s a lot for you on campus, so you don’t need to come to town.”

That was not always the case. Before the Franklin Mint Credit Union opened on campus in 1992, students used visit the PNC bank downtown. Gerner recalled often seeing a long line of students waiting outside of the bank.

Several businesses are recognizing the need to attract college students. Co-Op General Manager Gerry Greway said, “What [businesses] need to say is, this is a college town. [We need] a collection of stores that actually meet both needs of parents visiting and people who live nearby.” Greway particularly noted the absence of a “hip coffee shop,” that seems emblematic of a “college town.”

The Co-op has launched student-friendly initiatives of its own, such as offering a selection of gourmet cheeses and more prepared food. It hopes to offer free wireless soon. “We’re in the embryo stages of connecting with students in the college. I consider them an important part of the community,” said Greway.

The main problem is bridging the gap between students’ and residents’ needs.

“Nothing is open late at night because many of us own our businesses, and we can’t stay till late,” said Richardson.

Among prospective student-friendly business ideas, Richardson quickly ruled out a nightclub, or similar types of establishments.

“What would kids come down for?” asked Gerner. The Town Center aims to reach out to students to answer this elusive question. It also wants to introduce students to the resources already available. While it maybe a virtue to have small, specialty stores in Swarthmore, the stores risk falling into obscurity.

Two students, Otis Comorau ‘10 and Carl Shapiro ‘10, expressed a desire for a used bookstore downtown, not realizing that Booksource used to sell old and rare books. Another choice was a bridge club, a resource the Dew Drop Inn already has on Mondays, but at an inconvenient time for students.

Comorau’s final request was a Mambo club.


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7 comments

  1. 0
    Clara says:

    Don’t we have committees for everything? Why doesn’t Swarthmore Town Center Inc contact Student Council and liase with a group of students whose role it will be to ascertain what types of businesses will (really) draw students down to the Ville. This “Swarthmore Town Center Inc.” can then evaluate which of these businesses will also serve the needs of Ville residents. Another suggestion: high school kids. There is absolutely nothing to do in Swarthmore for kids still in high school except hangout outside of Renato’s. And coming from a suburban town similar to Swarthmore, that gets really old really quickly.

  2. 0
    Rio says:

    “Let’s be honest here, will any Swarthmore students actually miss the Village Restaurant or the obscure bookstore”

    I actually enjoyed the bookstore – they had the most fantastic of books and rare (expensive) ones too. I lament its closing most.

  3. 0
    Kate says:

    I would love to have a cozy coffee shop with large enough tables to spread out work. I get a lot of work done in dunkin but I’d be willing to switch to a less sterile environment if one was available. And i dont mean starbucks either… a nice, upscale restaurant or two could also go a long way. for example, a BYO, and one that is open late-ish. people walk out to the pike to go to Heng’s thai or they take the train to Media for dinner, so if a decent restaurant or two appeared in the ville i’m sure people would go to dinner there. not to disparage occasionally yours, which is delicious, but i don’t always have time to go there for brunch or lunch. I love their gift certificates though and I would love to see an expansion of that idea from them or other stores.

    i also don’t think that entrepreneurs in the ville need to decide between students and their more elderly clientele. surely a nice restaurant could cater to both.

    ultimately the ville needs to find stores and ideas that not only attract students, but fit into the rhythm of students’ lives. the coop is accomplishing that with cheese options and precooked meals, occasionally yours is doing it with its gift certificates, and dunkin does it by providing an off campus place to study in peace with wireless and giant cups of iced coffee. da vinci’s was on its way with late hours, wireless, and allowing students to use it as a gathering place to listen to music on weekends.

  4. 0
    Laura Horowitz says:

    As a parent, I’d love to see some arrangement whereby students could use some dining credits (points? I don’t remember what the term is) at stores in the Ville. I bet a lot of students would take advantage of that just to get off campus for a little while now and again. I know dining halls run on a very tight budget, but lots of other schools do it, and I’m sure Swarthmore could figure out a way as well.

    Responding to Matt’s post, I’m curious about what kinds of businesses would draw students into the Ville. Any thoughts?

  5. 0
    Matt says:

    Let’s be honest here, will any Swarthmore students actually miss the Village Restaurant or the obscure bookstore? I can understand and sympathize with the sentiments belonging to the cohort of senior residents from the borough itself, but both establishments were dated and “unhip” so to speak. The real problem with the Ville is that the existing establishments do not appeal to the CURRENT generation of Swarthmore students. A new eatery and a new discount bookstore would not be doomed simply because there are already two coffee shops and a college bookstore on campus. Students seek out variety and a change of pace. Without trying to sound too harsh, places like the Dew Drop Inn and and several other storefronts attract 70-something ladies–not exactly the target demographic of either the town or the college community. Perhaps future owners will take a page from the book of Greway and cater to a group of liberal-thinking, grass-eating, Shakespeare-reading Swatties, rather than Aunt Edna who absolutely adores the Salisbury Steak and Baked potato special at the local restaurant (open between the hours of 4pm and 9pm). Though I too get a bit sentimental when the old establishments go and the new ones move in, in the end, there comes a time when we have to realize that change isn’t always bad and a little turnover might be just what this tired little college town needs.

  6. 0
    Jeanie says:

    That’s depressing. All of the stores that closed sound like they were really enjoyable places. I would’ve been a patron. I love Swarthmore so far, but it is rather small and can occasionally feel somewhat confining. Heading to the Ville has already been a welcome mini-escape for me several times this year when there’s been enough time for a walk but not enough time to take the SEPTA into Philly (as if there’s ever enough time for that here). I hope the area can attract several appealing retailers to fill these vacancies. I, along with several other students I know, would welcome another “hip coffee shop”, for sure. Any coffee shop that isn’t Starbucks would be awesome, really.

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