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Dan Lawlor: A Hole in the Mall

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


One of my favorite things to do is wander around book stores. Walter Benjamin, a 20th Century critic, once wrote an entire essay on the "Joys of Book Collecting." Each book has a story - from its beginnings as a thought to its purchase at the counter. Providence is a particularly fantastic place to look for books - from the 19th Century Athenaeum on Benefit to the 20th Century Cellar Stories on Mathewson St. Random meetings with strangers or friends trying to find the same title, an unexpected novel, investing in the local economy - so awesome!

Several Providence-area bookstores have turned their last page, I'm afraid. Off -Campus Books, near Providence College, recently closed shop. It was a great place to find Dover Classics. Borders, the mega-book store sandwiched between the Panera Bread and Cheesecake Factory, died as well - here and all over the country.

So now what? In San Francisco, an entrepreneur named Martin Carmody took out a lease on a former Borders store, and has opened "Ode: Books Music Cafe." Mr. Carmody is pretty crafty - the lettering is strikingly (suspiciously) similar to the site's former tenant. Yet, three cheers for Mr. Carmody! A colleague from Massachusetts would talk about enjoying live music and working at her Borders Outlet. Surely, someone in Rhode Island would be interested (and financially able) to replicate a similar concept? Or, if no for-profit, perhaps - (wild idea) - a branch of the Providence Community Library could open shop at the old Border's site?

The question on my mind - what can Providence Place due to encourage similar reuse and re-imagining of its space? An empty tenant in such a prominent place is glaring, if something we're getting used to. It recalls the years long shuttering of the Arcade. One of the big promises of the downtown mall is that it provides a steady stream of jobs to locals, in addition to promoting economic activity and attracting folks to shop in the city. I would add the the moral obligation to find a tenant, to promote job creation, is higher at Providence Place than at most sites. A college was relocated for its construction and a 19th Century prison site was demolished. History was moved, in part, for that now defunct Borders.

Now, more than ever, we need good economic stewardship. As Bank of America leaves the Superman Building, as the Waterplace Condos are sold at auction, we need owners and managers - from the Mall on down- to be innovative and imaginative with their spaces. I don't want to read about Providence Place on deadmalls.com, a site that tells the stories of failed retail shopping centers. Millions of dollars have been spent to design and construct Providence Place, to create special entrance escalators cutting through the Westin Hotel, and to build the high (and dangerous) heights inside.That money should not be wasted! In short, the question is: what can fill that hole in the mall for the long term, and fill it in a way that helps this city become a more interesting place?

While wandering the book stories of Providence, at my beloved Symposium on Westminster, I came across a great novel by Eca de Queiros, a 19th Century Portuguese novelist, who wrote of the decadence and decline of Portugal's elite before the violence of the Portuguese Revolution and subsequent rise of Fascism. In his great novel, Os Maias, one character notes, "The world is a very badly run place." I hope, in this century, in this city, we can prove that character wrong.


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