Beating Change: A Streak of Resilience in a Transient Allston
BOSTON — After 67 years, Mandy & Joe’s Deli in Allston-Brighton closed for good this March. Earlier in the year, the International Bike Shop announced its closure on Allston’s Brighton Avenue. Lulu’s, a new, modern bar and hip eatery, opened last summer where Café Brazil previously served customers for 22 years.
Change can be constant on the streets of Allston, with larger change looming. Large development projects are moving into the area, and Allston is set to see the construction of a new commuter rail stop.
Among increasingly transient population, Allston’s small business too come and go, or at least change. Yet the neighborhood has a handful of resilient businesses — from selling hedgehogs to cheap pints — that have endured decades despite gentrification, an increasingly young and temporary demographic and bursts of development.
Amid the various squeaks and squalls that immerse the back “animal room” at the Allston Pet Shop on Harvard Avenue, one employee’s voice comes through, stern and knowing.
“Up. Up!” he says, pointing to the top of the cage. The creature he’s speaking to does not want to listen.
“C’mon, up,” he repeats, before kneeling down to get the animal in his hands, scratching and petting his head. This creature is Harley, not a cat or other furry friend, but a very large, bright and beautiful Hyacinth Macaw with kind eyes and an intimidating beak. Harley, a family pet, is 28 years old and can live to be 120.
The Pet Shop has been around longer than Harley, though. It opened in 1970, and current owner Jim Gentile bough the shop in 1975. It’s been in his family ever since. Back in the 1970s, Gentile catered to neighborhood families, but since then he says he has watched the neighborhood change many times.
There are currently 264 businesses in Allston. The neighborhood has a 98% occupancy rate for storefronts, a very high and competitive rate compared to other Boston neighborhoods, according to Alana Olsen, Executive Director of Allston Village Main Streets. Olsen works to provide services and assistance to small business owners, as well as promoting the Main Streets business district, neighborhood infrastructure and public art.
“Every small business has its unique story,” says Olsen. For the Pet Shop, that story is a passion for animals and a love for the neighborhood.
“It’s insanity that draws you into this,” Gentile deadpans. He calls himself a “lifer,” and says there aren't many of his kind left in the business.
To stay relevant throughout the decades, Gentile has had to change his business model to “cater to the neighborhood changes.” As the amount of neighborhood families declined, Gentile found himself selling less large or high-maintenance pets.
Gentile says that due to influx of younger, more temporary residents and renters, the Pet Shop largely ceased to be a hobbyist business and grew into more of a pet “beginners” business. True, almost 87% of the neighborhood’s housing is renter occupied, according to 2010 U.S. Census data.
Still, Gentile loves his Allston location because of its maintained vibrancy.
“I don’t think I could have survived anywhere else,” Gentile says frankly.
There is no short supply of this vibrancy within Jim’s store as well. Colorful birds squall in their cages while hedgehogs nestle in their displays in the shop window, and at any point in time there is a small zoo of dogs and cats — all Gentile’s — greeting customers or roaming around the store.
The pet shop has always been in Allston, but it was once located right down the street, next to Mr. Music, a local music shop selling everything from used and vintage amplifiers to an extensive selection of guitar pedals, to an assortment of small, colorful harmonicas located in a fishbowl on the register desk.
Not only is Mr. Music the only and oldest musician’s store on Harvard Avenue, it’s the oldest music shop in Boston, according to a longtime employee of over 30 years. A banner above the entrance proclaims: “Rockin’ Boston for 40 Years!”
Owner Sal Barone opened Mr. Music in 1973, and the employee, who declined to give his name, began working at the shop in 1981. He explained that in the early days, Mr. Music sold vinyl records, adding CDs when they became popular. To adapt, the store abandoned records and focused on instruments, the employee explained.
“It’s always been about the music, though. Always,” he confirmed.
The 1970s era shop was tiny, but as Mr. Music’s offerings expanded, so did the shop. They began selling a lot of used and vintage instruments, the employee explained, pointing out a huge selection of guitar pedals that makes Mr. Music stand out to customers. Beyond a physical expansion, Mr. Music adapted to online shopping as well.
“We ship all over the world now…that’s how we've stayed relevant,” he explained.
While times and the business have changed, the people haven’t for the most part, according to the longtime employee.
“It’s really weird….there are different incarnations, but we’ve always been the same type of people, the same ‘genre’ of humans here throughout the years,” he said.
Gentile, on the other hand, has witnessed his demographic shift. Allston has long had its share of ethnic diversity, and Gentile has been around long enough to see it come in waves. First were Russian immigrants, he explains, before he owned the Pet Shop. Then he saw an influx of Vietnamese in the ‘70s, followed by a large Brazilian population and currently a growing Asian population.
Olsen confirms, explaining that small businesses have historically responded to demographics in the neighborhoods. She says the once Brazilian-heavy neighborhood is currently giving way to a larger Asian demographic, making Allston a “little Korea.”
Some changes haven’t come easily for the neighborhood’s long-standing businesses, however. Gentile says the mid to late-2000s were a particularly difficult time for the Pet Shop, especially because his business isn’t a “necessary” one. But Gentile struggled through because he truly loves his job.
“I can’t think of a day I’ve woken up and thought, ‘Crap! I gotta go to work.’”
While there is a Petco just up the street, Gentile believes small businesses can compete today by finding their niche.
“They can beat a small business to death on dog food prices, but they don’t sell [animals] right,” he says.
The Mr. Music employee too believes his store will remain the city’s oldest music store for years or even decades to come.
“We’ve weathered the storms,” he said, noting, however, that challenges have arisen over increasing rent prices.
He explains that although Barone considered moving to a different location downtown, there wasn’t anything as “versatile as Allston” within a reasonable price range.
Rent hikes have been “incredibly difficult” for older business, Olsen says. Businesses that have become a part of the cultural and destination aspect of Allston need to adapt and “keep their offerings interesting, she explains.
“Businesses go through phases, just like people do,” and therefore It can be difficult to tell what gives a business that “staying power,” she says.
While new restaurants and shops open and replace older businesses, Olsen says that for the most part, the businesses or business “types” of Allston stay the same, instead rebranding or shifting operators. Concert venue Brighton Music Hall was called Harper’s Ferry before 2010, but it was still a music venue, she explains as an example.
“Still, it’s great that businesses that have fundamentally changed Allston are still operating here,” she says.
It’s past 1:45 a.m. on a Tuesday night in Allston’s Union Square, and co-owner Bill Anthony is arriving at his bar, the Model Café. He is only there to close, but the crowd of various ages is still chatting away and finishing their drinks.
The family owned Model is in its 3rd generation. Anthony’s grandfather, a Greek immigrant, opened the business in 1932, calling it North Beacon Lunch, says Anthony, pointing at the old sign that now hangs above the bar’s DJ booth.
North Beacon Lunch became The Model Café after the Prohibition ended and Anthony’s grandfather got a liquor license. The bar’s name has origins in Allston-Brighton, as the neighborhood at the time was called a “model city,” Anthony explains.
For decades, before the late 1980s, The Model was a blue collar “restaurant and watering hole” for local factory workers and other residents working various shifts,” according to Anthony. There was a focus on food in the earlier decades, giving The Model more of a family appeal.
“I think we’ve stayed relevant because of the ‘family’ vibe — people get to know you here,” says Anthony, adding that the bar has maintained a good price value.
“As my father taught me, volume is better than expensive drinks,” he says with a smile.
Anthony has a lot of connections to Allston. He grew up in the neighborhood and worked for his father at The Model from an early age. Breakfast joint Twin Donuts, across the street, is actually named after Anthony and his brother George.
Agreeing with Gentile, Anthony feels his patron demographic has changed over the decades, away from families and steel factory workers to students, musicians and a more artistic crowd.
“Now we get a lot of business from the [skateboard shop] Orchard kids, down on Harvard Ave,” he says. “It’s nice to see the renaissance of new kids that come around.”
As Allston factories closed in the 1980s, Anthony’s family adjusted; the need for food diminished, so The Model increased its “nightclub” factor, changing the décor and adding a jukebox and DJ booth.
Anthony can count how many times a spot like Brighton Avenue’s Tavern on the Square has changed to meet a different clientele — from disco dance, to Irish pub, to its current incarnation as a sports and college bar, he says he has seen it all.
The family-oriented nature of his business has helped the Model get by in economically challenging years, like the late 1990s, according to Anthony. Yet along with his brothers George and Harry that work at the Model, Anthony extends the family circle to his bar “crew” — including doorman Sully who has been with The Model for eight years, and bartenders that have been around more than 15.
One things that’s been lost over the years, according to Anthony, is a bigger sense of community along the small businesses in the Allston blocks.
“Back in the day, I knew everyone around here and on Harvard Ave,” he says. “Now I just stick to my corner in Union Square”
Another change coming to the neighborhood is rapid development — like the upcoming New Balance headquarters and business complex. Anthony says he doesn’t mind the development and added business component, although he believes many of his patrons do.
“I just hope that with all the new development there will always be a spot for places like The Model.”
Anthony says he appreciates the vibrancy and diversity in people and nightlife that has come to represent Allston. He doesn’t want to be a place like Sunset Grill & Tap or neighboring bar Deep Ellum — “and vice versa,” he laughs.
“I’m gonna run with this idea for as long as I can,” he says. “You can’t be pretentious…You are what you are, and we’re the Model.”