Vacant Stores, Empty Feeling

I’ve recently noticed a disturbing scene on my regular morning walks through downtown Medford. It’s starting to make me rather anxious about the town’s economic health.

I began seeing them last spring, these now-ubiquitous “For Rent” signs hanging in one too many Main Street storefronts. At last count I noted seven shops now darkened. These include everything from a gift shop I remember from childhood, to a Life Is Good store that only lasted a couple of years. And this is to say nothing of the multi-unit building on the corner of Main and Union, which was recently (and beautifully) reconstructed after it was destroyed in a fire last summer. It’s been ready to rent for at least three months now, but remains vacant.

Don’t get me wrong. Medford is no Depression-era ghost town. There are still many reasons to take a stroll down Main Street these days. In fact, a new artisanal cheese shop opened here earlier this year, and restaurants like Braddock’s Tavern and Ted’s On Main still draw respectable crowds on the weekends.

But Main Street Medford also has nothing close to the hip, bustling downtown energy of, say, Collingswood or Haddonfield, where one can find regular music and arts festivals, seasonal farmers’ markets, and dozens of popular restaurants and bars with lines out the door on a Saturday night. And while I’m sure these towns have also suffered some bruises in recent years, you wouldn’t know it to see them.

I recall a different Main Street. When I was a kid, my younger brother and I frequently rode our bikes into town with the intent of wiling away endless hours at the local record store, or sampling sweets at Main Street’s legendary candy shop (both long-since closed). I remember my mom taking us shopping for back-to-school garb at one of Main Street’s many clothing stores, or stopping into the Medford Bakery for donuts on Sunday mornings after church.

Sadly, these outings are no longer possible. If you want donuts, you’re probably going to one of Medford’s many Dunkins. If you want back-to-school clothes, get in your car and head out to Target. And if you want to find music, well, you can buy that seated at your computer.

Something important seems to be lost when a town can no longer look to its Main Street for commerce and community, especially when it’s as beautiful and historic as the one we’ve got here in Medford. Hopefully when the economy starts turning around, Main Street will turn right around with it. In the meantime, I’ll keep walking my walk.

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