"Barefoot in New Haven??"
Last April, while at the AYA Assembly, I stopped at Barrie Ltd., as I usually do when in New Haven. Imagine my surprise and dismay when I learned that maybe, just maybe, Barrie's would be closing later in the year.
My first reaction was, "Where will I buy my shoes?!"
It seems that Yale had offered Barrie's a lease that not was to Barrie's liking. I talked with the Barrie's folks for awhile and went to the AYA meeting. They will work this out, I told myself. I chose to ignore the fact that Barrie's had not placed its usual order with its English suppliers. I chose to believe that dear Old Yale would not willingly force the closing of a Yale institution. Silly me!!
On September 11th, I stopped in New Haven on my way to Boston and there it was. SALE! SALE! SALE! Signs all over the windows. I went in. There was John Isaacs, the current owner and grandson of the founder. Keep in mind that Barrie's has been on York Street since 1934. John confirmed the very bad news.
To me, Barrie's is a Yale institution. Since 1934, Barrie Ltd. has been selling shoes to Yale students and faculty. Three generations of the Isaacs family have not only owned it but also have been there every day and sold the shoes. The current merchandise has the requisite penny loafers and desert boots and fine English shoes, an amazing array of sandals and other New Age footgear hardly recognizable to me. Women's shoes abound. Barrie's has always had their shoes made by fine manufacturers and then sold them direct to us. Hence, great quality and much lower prices than, say, in New York. Yale graduates make up a loyal customer base. On Reunion Weekends, you can hardly get in the place!
When all of us first met Barrie's, it was in that little side shop of the J.Press building. Just about ten years ago, Ginny and I were in New Haven, walking down York Street on our way to the Co-op, when Barrie's seemed to have disappeared, vanished, gone! Their shop had another merchant in it. Shock briefly was turning to sadness when, 40 feet farther down York, there was Barrie's in the old Fenn-Fenstein building, right on the corner of York, Elm and Broadway. Happiness returned.
Back to September 11th. John Isaacs and his family had made their decision. Barrie's will close by late November or sooner if the inventory runs out.
Yale is the culprit. Over the years, Yale had been buying many of the commercial buildings on Chapel, York and Broadway. Much of the refurbishment of Chapel Street has come from Yale owning the buildings and getting better tenants. Yale hired an experienced real estate Rouse Corp executive who had managed the make over of Quincy Market and Fanueil Hall in Boston. Over the last five years, Yale's University Properties division has required tenants to be open 361 days per year and stay open until 9PM. Yale has steadfastly maintained that this part of the lease is "non-negotiable." This is to create a well-lighted and safe environment for shoppers. It is the policy of all major shopping malls. We now have a J. Crew, Urban Outfitters, and, of course, Barnes & Noble where the Co-op was. Broadway now has "national" type stores and less local color.
The Isaacs family decided they could not live with this. They know nobody buys shoes after dinner. My mother and grandmother told me never to buy shoes after 4PM because human feet swell as the day progresses and the shoes would always be too big! Maybe people buy shoes after dinner in a Mall but not on York Street. Yale students and faculty are too busy after dinner. Yalies are studying, working at the Dramat, the Glee Club, the Band, etc. Maybe even drinking or chasing girls. Yale would not budge. To be fair, John Isaacs said in a press release that he was finding it increasingly difficult to find shoe manufacturers up to Barrie' standards. His business, while still very profitable, was getting hard to run. Yale's lease demands were the final stroke.
Yale just settled its labor strike. Those workers had leverage. Barrie's did not. They especially had no leverage on a Real Estate department staffed by nonYale graduates to whom Barrie's was just another retailer. To me, as mentioned above, Barrie's is an institution. York/Elm/Broadway is not a mall but an organic part of the Yale campus. That great Korean deli with the salad bar should stay open to 9PM. Ditto the movie theatre. Ditto Au Bon Pain (where Liggetts used to be). For Yale not to make exceptions to the 361 days per year/9PM rule when warranted, exhibits a lack of the very "critical thinking" Yale College instilled in us. Emerson said it well. "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." Emerson's dictum applies in spades to Yale and University Properties.
John Isaacs has talked with the managers of the neighboring "national stores". They are not meeting their sales goals. When their leases expire, they may be gone. The fringe of the Yale campus is not a shopping mall. It is the fringe of the Yale campus. Nobody is going to drive from the suburbs in to New Haven, park their car and shop along Broadway. They will drive to a play at the Yale Rep but they will eat at a Chapel Street restaurant, see the play, get in their car and drive home. The shoppers of Broadway's emporia are Yale students and faculty, each with two feet and now and then seeking shoes.
If you want to see the future, take a look at Harvard Square. The traffic still bustles, the newsstand is still there, the T station still functions but the stores are all "national". So are most of the restaurants. All wonderfully homogenized. Nothing local until you get far enough away from the Square to find those that have escaped. Gone are the raffish elements that made it so attractive.
Back to New Haven. Let us all pray that the Yankee Doodle is not in a Yale owned building. Even if Yale relented, it is too late for Barrie's. And, J.Press, right next door, will not be open until 9PM because Press owns its building. What is really disturbing about all this is Yale's attitude. Rigid, unbending and unimaginative. Trying to force a mall model on an area that is not a mall.
Three last thoughts. When we were at Yale as students, we looked good (remember those coats and ties?) and the streets looked a bit shabby. Now the streets look good (all those "national" stores) and the students look shabby. And, what will take over Barrie's space? Given the foolish consistency doctrine, look for Starbucks!! Or, maybe even Cole-Hahn. Then, Yale will still have a shoe store but not Barrie Ltd.
Lastly, it is somewhat comforting to know that those of us with shoes from Barrie's will still be wearing them, thanks to their unbelievable quality, long after the next tenant has gone and the University Properties office either has changed leaders, or come to its senses or vanished itself.
(Barrie's letter to customers announcing its closing and media coverage of the situation can be found by clicking the Store Closing button at Barrieltd.com.)
David may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.