Like most people who grew up in and around Springfield in the ’60s and ’70s, Mikki Lessard has fond memories of getting on a bus and spending an entire Saturday afternoon downtown.
She said most of those visits would start, and a good number would also end, at Johnson’s Bookstore, but there were plenty of other stops as well.
“We would go to Johnson’s, and Steiger’s, and many other stores. There was always something happening; it was positive, and it was fun,” said Lessard, adding that, while she acknowledges that things won’t ever be exactly like that again given changes in how and where many people shop, it can be, well, something like that again.
And she and business partner Nancy Feth are a huge part of that ‘something.’
They are the founders of an intriguing enterprise called Simply Grace, which now operates a growing portfolio of businesses operating under the name the Shops at Marketplace in downtown Springfield — almost exactly where Johnson’s Bookstore was operating until it closed 20 years ago.
There are shops, but this is also a gathering place for events ranging from Thunderbird Thursdays to a farmer’s market to a Dress for Success graduation ceremony.
The two partners have a name for what they’ve created — a ‘retail-tainment district,’ blending both retail and entertainment. They didn’t invent the phrase — it’s been in use for a while and is often summoned when the discussion turns to what traditional shopping malls must become if they want to survive — but they believe they have the first in downtown Springfield, arriving ahead of MGM Springfield.
It all started with the Simply Grace Serendipity Boutique, and ‘the Shops’ has grown to include a yoga studio, a restaurant, a new store that just opened its doors, and another now being built out.
As they tell the story — and they love to tell the story, often finishing one another’s sentences and providing complementary commentary as they do so — these entrepreneurs note that they came to downtown Springfield as one of what was supposed to be several small retailers that agreed to set up shop as part of the initial Springfield Holiday Market in 2015, a strategic initiative designed to put some underutilized space in the Marketplace complex to work in a way that would bring people downtown and generate some momentum as well as foot traffic.
As things turned out, there were only a few pop-up shops, as they were called, on that location, but they did well collectively, and the public responded to this bid to bring some retail back to Main Street.
When the holidays were over, Glenn Edwards, owner of the property, asked Feth and Lessard if they would like to stay on for a while. They said yes, but without giving any real indication of a what ‘a while’ might or should become.
“We said, ‘we’ll stay for a few more months; we’ll stay ’til Valentine’s Day,’” said Feth, before Lessard picked up for her.
“And then, we asked to stay ’til Mother’s Day,” she explained. “And then we decided we wanted to stay for the year.”
But with some conditions, specifically that they could take space one of the retailers was vacating for yoga classes in an effort to attract more people and different constituencies to the downtown.
And, overall, the two entrepreneurs have been continuing that pattern, or mindset, ever since, adding new components to Simply Grace; bringing more events, vitality, and energy to the Marketplace area; and also, for those efforts, earning an award from the Small Business Administration to coincide with Small Business Week (April 29 to May 5).
Indeed, Feth and Lessard will be at the Sheraton Needham Hotel on May 4 to accept the Microenterprise of the Year Award, one of the few enterprises from Western Mass. to win such an honor in recent years.
But before, and after, all their focus will be on Springfield, the Marketplace, and new developments for Simply Grace.
These include a recent addition called Brick & Mortar, what Lessard calls a “mercantile, apothecary, and more,” which actually has some exposed brick for effect. There’s also Alchemy, a manicure and pedicure salon now being built out; Dharma, the yoga studio; and the boutique that got things rolling.
Those four businesses, along with Nosh, an eatery across the way from the boutique, now comprise a critical mass of small, diverse shops that the two partners believe will bring more foot traffic and momentum to an area that was once the pulse of downtown Springfield a generation ago — and can, they believe, take that role again.
“Do we have mall traffic? Heck no,” said Lessard. “But it’s working. It’s always about creating curiosity and then converting that into customers, and that’s what we’re doing.”
The only downside to all this is that the space once devoted to the holiday pop-up markets is now gone, absorbed by what could be called permanent fixtures, said the partners, adding that, in most all ways, this constitutes a very good problem to have.
For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Feth and Lessard about their venture and how in some ways it constitutes turning back the clock, but in most others, it’s symbolic of the downtown’s future.
What’s in Store
‘Walk. Pause. Browse. Shop. Experience.’
Those are the words the two partners have placed before ‘the Shops at Marketplace’ in their branding of the facility. And both collectively and individuality, those terms speak to what this venture is all about — as well as to some of the elements that have largely been missing from downtown since those days when Lessard and countless others would get on a bus and take it to Main Street.
There was far less walking, pausing, browsing, and shopping going on, and therefore there was less to experience.
Feth and Lessard weren’t exactly out to change that equation when they were first invited to bring a taste of the Simply Grace Serendipity Boutique, a shop they opened in Monson, to downtown Springfield for the holidays. But that’s what has happened.
It’s been an intriguing journey, a learning experience on many levels, said the partners, adding that they are still writing new chapters to this story.
That first Holiday Market was so successful that the BID asked the new partners to manage and staff that project moving forward, said Feth, adding that they did so, providing an opportunity for a number of new businesses to become part of the experience and gain some critical visibility. And through that work, the partners came to understand the many layers of significance to their efforts. Indeed, this wasn’t simply retail, it was economic development.
“A lot of what we do is build community and work on economic development,” Feth explained. “These are the value adds we feel we bring to Springfield in addition to our own businesses.”
Lessard agreed, and referred to Simply Grace’s broad efforts as “collaborating and incubating.”
As for their own businesses, the partners say they are doing well and succeeding in their primary mission. That would be to bring people, but especially women, downtown. Or back downtown, as is often the case.
They’re getting that done by providing reasons to do so, said Lessard, adding that these vary and include yoga, the shops — which sell products made by vendors with unique, community-minded stories — and events.
Elaborating, Lessard said the partners will utilize their indoor spaces and walkways during winter and schedule a variety of gatherings for women, and when the weather gets warmer, they will fully “activate” the indoor and outdoor space, using it to host everything from flea markets to White Lion Wednesdays; from farmers markets to live music.
In fact, the space has become a popular venue for fundraising for groups that include Rays of Hope, Unify Against Bullying, Dress for Success, and many more.
“We just want to have this lively, quintessential, unexpected experience in downtown Springfield,” Lessard explained, adding that the key word there, and perhaps unfortunately, is ‘unexpected.’
Indeed, Feth said that many of those who come to the Shops at the Marketplace will offer commentary that makes this point.
“We’ll often hear people say, ‘I don’t feel like I’m in Springfield,’” said Feth. “Or ‘I feel like I’m in New York or San Francisco.’”
Which Lessard followed with, ‘and we gladly say, ‘you’re in this wonderful city called Springfield.’”
The unofficial mission moving forward, for the partners at Simply Grace and the city as a whole, is to generate fewer of these comments and to make a fulfilling trip downtown something that’s expected, not unexpected.
And the partners believe they and the city are moving closer to that goal through their lively mix of retail, events, things to do, and things to experience.
And the retail is a big part of it, said Feth, adding that, contrary to what is becoming popular opinion, traditional retail is not dead, and not everyone wants to buy everything on Amazon and have it shipped to their home.
“What we’re finding is that customers are actually hungry for experiences where they can see the product, talk to people, feel seen and acknowledged, and have a real experience instead of just a virtual experience,” she explained, before Lessard picked up on that ‘feel seen’ comment and ran with it because of its significance.
“We have women who come in here that pause, then browse, then shop, just to be seen,” she told BusinessWest. “They feel like they’re in this hustle and bustle of life and no one’s acknowledging them. So they come in, they share stories, we give them hugs; we actually care about them as people.
“We get a lot of pushback from people from who say, ‘you should be in East Longmeadow’ or ‘you should be in Hampden or somewhere other than downtown Springfield,’” she went on. “But we’re exactly where we’re supposed to be, because the women we’re connecting to that work or live or play downtown are very stressed out, and when they come to our store, it’s a breath of fresh air, an unexpected experience.”
There’s that word again — unexpected. Soon, perhaps, it can be retired, and downtown Springfield will move closer to the one Lessard remembers from her youth, a time, she recalled, when there was always something positive and fun happening.
The partners at Simply Grace are doing their part to bring those phrases back into use. They’ll soon have an award from the Small Business Administration to show for their efforts, but they’ve already received something perhaps even more significant to them.
That would be all those comments from people who say they don’t believe they’re in downtown Springfield. Such comments tell them they’re doing the right thing and in the right place.
And to think they were only going to stay a month.
Good thing they didn’t.
George O’Brien can be reached at email@example.com