Downtown to replace annual sidewalk sale with new evening event that will be a month earlier and feature more than shopping

photo by: Mike Yoder

Shoppers check out the shoes at The Halo Deck, 725 Massachusetts St., during the sidewalk sale Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021.

If you wanted to fry an egg on a Lawrence sidewalk, there long has been an obvious day to do it: the third Thursday of July, which is the traditional date for the Downtown Lawrence Sidewalk Sale.

As a journalist, I can tell you TV crews and others have done such pieces over the years to illustrate how hot it is during the shopping extravaganza. And, of course, it is humanly impossible to count the number of times we’ve uttered things like “the only thing hotter than the deals is the weather.”

In short, the heat of the Downtown Lawrence Sidewalk Sale has been a long-running joke. At some point it stopped being funny.

In recent years, there was even an effort to move the sale to September while still doing an event earlier in the summer.

Now, organizers are changing the event again after 60 years to try to beat the heat. Downtown Lawrence Inc. has announced it is moving the annual sale to late June, and it is hosting the majority of its events during the evening hours.

“At times, it just felt downright dangerous,” Jennifer McKnight, owner of Arizona Trading Company and a veteran of 32 downtown sidewalk sales, told me. “It felt like something you had to endure rather than enjoy.”

The new date for the sale has been set for Friday, June 23. The main activities of the event will be scheduled for 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. It is a major change, and with it comes a new name. No longer will the event be marketed as the Downtown Lawrence Sidewalk Sale. Instead, it will be branded as Mid Summer Night on Mass

McKnight, who is on Downtown Lawrence Inc.’s events committee, said that sidewalk sale-style shopping would still be a major part of the new event.

But she said organizers are planning for the event to be broader than shopping, with restaurants offering special deals and menus and side streets being converted into outdoor stages for music. Those changes aren’t designed to so much beat the heat, but rather combat a growing apathy that McKnight said was settling over the sidewalk sale.

“We’ve noticed a drop in attendance for the sidewalk sale and a drop in business participation,” McKnight said of her and several retailers who have been longtime sale participants. “The crowds have just been dwindling.”

Organizers are still finalizing what musical acts will play at the event and which side streets would be shut down to accommodate the shows. Andrew Holt, the new executive director of DLI, said organizers also are working to book smaller acts of one or two people — everything from jugglers to musicians — who will be set up on street corners or will roam Massachusetts Street.

Holt, who began his duties as executive director last month, hadn’t ever experienced a traditional Downtown Lawrence Sidewalk Sale. He began work for DLI after previously leading a downtown organization in Yakima, Washington.

“The feeling was that the event needed some freshening up and some updating,” Holt said of what members had told him.

The issue of the heat also kept coming up.

“I haven’t been around to see it, but I’ve heard words like ‘the hottest day of the year,'” Holt said.

Now it will be interesting to see whether a summer night can warm the cash registers of downtown retailers. The idea of having most of the event’s attractions occur from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. runs counter to some of the traditional hours of downtown retailers. Many aren’t open past 6 p.m., although on Sidewalk Sale day merchants boasted of shopping from “sunup to sundown.”

Downtown has never been like a mall where a central entity can dictate the hours all shops must be open. But the issue of whether downtown retailers need later hours has been around for years. McKnight said the evening nature of this new event isn’t meant to encourage a rethinking of downtown’s traditional shopping hours. But she does hope and expect many retail shops will stay open later than normal.

“I think that is going to be part of the fun,” McKnight said. “It is just a different time of day. It gives people who are not able to shop in stores normally an opportunity to do so, and I think some retailers will find that it is kind of exciting to be open at a different time.”

McKnight also is hoping the new event will be more enjoyable for all types of businesses downtown. She said that some restaurant owners have told her that the day of the Sidewalk Sale was a rough one for their businesses.

Of course, retailers have had their share of concerns with restaurants in downtown too. Most recently, some retailers have expressed concern over the city’s decision to allow restaurants to convert some Massachusetts Street parking spaces into outdoor dining spots.

“Downtown Lawrence has been pretty divided the last few years,” McKnight said.

She said the idea of an event that could help both restaurants and retailers be successful, while engaging lots of community members, was appealing. She said the sense of community spirit was one of the elements she most enjoyed of the sidewalk sale when it was in its heyday.

A single Mid Summer Night on Mass probably won’t be enough to smooth over all divisions in downtown, but it might produce the right mix of activities and people to create that same sense of community spirit.

“I think we are just hoping for a really crowded, fun, safe event, and whatever happens from that can only be positive,” McKnight said.


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