Another specialty retail store set to close in downtown, and another owner laments changes on Mass. Street

photo by: Richard Gwin

Deborah Briggs, owner of Extra Virgin at 937 Massachusetts St., is pictured in this file photo from July 2012.

I can attest that making olive oil is perhaps one of the most difficult processes on Earth. Every time I try, it comes out as a martini. Despite that, a downtown Lawrence store that sells high-grade olive oil is closing its doors, and its owner says changes to downtown have a lot to do with the closing.

Extra Virgin has been open for six years at 937 Massachusetts St., selling imported olive oils and balsamic vinegars. Owner Debbie Briggs said the store would be closing in the coming weeks as she sold off inventory.

“Every year, we have gone down in sales,” Briggs said. “I don’t think it has anything to do with what we are selling. I think Mass. Street, with the parking problems and the amount of rents, just doesn’t make it conducive to making a profit.”

When the store opened in 2012, it was a different type of business for downtown. While downtown had a couple of specialty food retailers, it didn’t have one that focused primarily on just two products, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. That makes Extra Virgin a niche store, but one that makes good sense, Briggs said. America is becoming more of a nation of foodies, and people are also becoming more health-conscious about the ingredients they use in their foods. Both of those trends play well with Extra Virgin.

“I really believe in my product,” Briggs said. “There is a real problem with what is available in the supermarket. Much of it is not what it says it is, and what is left is probably not very fresh.”

Briggs ships her extra virgin olive oil in from across the globe, switching from the northern hemisphere to the southern hemisphere as the seasons change to ensure freshness, she said.

Whether a decline in the popularity of olive oil or a decline in the downtown business environment is the driving force behind Extra Virgin’s woes is a matter of opinion. But it is becoming clearer that there is a fair amount of vacant storefront space on Massachusetts Street. The former Buffalo Wild Wings, the former Buckle, and the former Ingredient restaurant are all large, high-profile locations that have been vacant for awhile now. The list of smaller vacant storefronts is longer.

Briggs said she thought some of the decisions by Lawrence City Hall during her store’s six-year tenure had been unhelpful. She cited the decision to raise the fine for overtime parking at the Massachusetts Street meters and the decision to close Massachusetts Street to vehicle traffic during the Final Four as examples of City Hall leaders not understanding the impact their decisions have on small businesses.

But Briggs also said there were factors beyond government decisions that are putting pressure on downtown.

“I think part of it is people are buying on the internet, but part of it is people on the west side of town don’t shop in downtown,” Briggs said.

The idea that west side residents don’t frequently shop in downtown is a sentiment I have heard other business owners express. It is impossible for me to put any numbers behind that. Sales tax data, for instance, doesn’t get that specific, but store owners certainly have enough data from credit cards and check transactions to know. It would be interesting to get a more definitive answer to that question.

The other perception you hear frequently from downtown business owners is that rents are too high, especially for small retail shops. Briggs said she’s been very appreciative of her landlord, and she didn’t want to criticize rent rates. But she also said that something is going on in the market that seems to favor bars and restaurants over retailers.

“If we keep going the way we are going, downtown is going to be all restaurants and bars,” Briggs said. “Mass. Street is a gem. We have to do something to beef up and help downtown and encourage retail stores to come in.”

Briggs, who operates the store with her son Nathan, said she hasn’t set a definite closing date for the store, but will wait to see how quickly inventory is reduced as part of the going-out-of-business sale. She also said she’s waiting to make a decision on whether to reopen the store elsewhere.

“We will make a decision about whether to reopen, but it won’t be in Lawrence,” she said.


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