A photo of the Brown Bookstore in 2004, located at 244 Thayer Street, Providence. Credit: J Hogue via ArtInRuins. Text under the image reads: "The Brown Bookstore has sat at the heart of Thayer St. for decades."
A photo of the Brown Bookstore from the same angle, now in 2015. Credit: Google Street View Photos. Text under the image reads: "Though its appearance has changed multiple times since 2000, the Brown Bookstore is among the most longstanding storefronts on Thayer — it is one of just 11 stores that have been on the street since 2000."
A 2022 photo of the Brown Bookstore. Credit: J Hogue via ArtInRuins. Text under the image reads: "The Herald dug through archives, news articles and other online resources to map out the evolution of Thayer Street — a campus mainstay with an ever-changing appearance and culture."
In the last few years alone, businesses on Thayer Street have come and gone while navigating the challenges of a global pandemic — from hiring shortages to financial troubles — and the adjustment to a post-pandemic economy, which brought supply chain challenges and inflation as restrictions eased.
These changes are just the latest in the street’s long history and ongoing evolution as a business and community hub on College Hill.
A changing street
Since the 1970s, the street has seen an influx of restaurants and a departure of small businesses — a change that some Thayer long-timers dislike and others welcome.
When Ann Dusseault, owner of the now-closed jewelry and gift boutique Pie in the Sky, moved the store to Thayer in 1995, the street was packed with “florists and record stores, different bookstores … skate shops, comic books (and) everything,” she said.
“It was a cool street,” she added. “It had all indies.”
Dusseault initially opened Pie in the Sky in 1993 at 183 Angell St. “We did everything to try to get people to walk off Thayer Street to us,” she said. Even with “crazy signage and sandwich boards,” Dusseault explained, “it was still hard to get people to come.”
But today, with the disappearance of independent shops, Thayer is “all food,” she said.
According to Dusseault, the University’s presence has also impacted the street. In May 2003, Brown and a coalition of Thayer businesses announced a push to remove graffiti, add “more attractive trash cans” and make general cosmetic improvements to the street.
A few years later, the Thayer Street District Management Authority was established in January 2006. The TSDMA oversees the management and maintenance of the area bounded by Bowen, Brook and Waterman streets.
Donna Personeus, who has served as executive director of the TSDMA since 2014, said that the organization was founded by a group of property owners who wanted to work as a team to address issues like graffiti removal, sidewalks, lighting, landscaping and more.
Ali Burns-Nachwalter, who opened her boutique NAVA on Thayer in 2008, said that the street has become “commercialized” since her arrival, pointing to the replacement of small businesses with chain restaurants.
Today, Thayer is “starting to feel like an outdoor food court,” Burns-Nachwalter said.
Ben & Jerry’s originally opened just off Thayer on Meeting Street in May 1988, and the ice cream shop relocated to Thayer in November 2013, wrote Alexa Harrison, public relations manager for the store, in an email to The Herald.
With “a long-standing presence” on the street, the ice cream shop’s current location in the former Symposium Books space retains the original marble of the building, helping to preserve its history, wrote Senior Business Consultant Ben Soisson in an email to The Herald.
All Ben & Jerry’s shops are locally owned and operated, and “we’re so happy to have secured a reasonably affordable location on busy Thayer Street,” Soisson wrote.
Ed Davis, chef and general manager of former Thayer staple Durk’s Bar-B-Q, first came to Providence 18 years ago. Even then, locals would tell him that the street “ain’t what it used to be,” he wrote in an email to The Herald.
But for Richard Dulgarian, owner of the Avon Cinema, the turnover has brought benefits without erasing the street’s unique character.
“It’s also become a gourmet’s delight,” he wrote in an email to The Herald, recalling that in the 1970s, the street had only two restaurants: Rascal House and The Hungry Sheik. “Now, there are dozens (of restaurants) that would satisfy every culinary palate,” he wrote.
Both Davis and Dusseault left Thayer by 2020, while Dulgarian remains today.
To Thayer or not to Thayer?
Local businesses rely on foot traffic to bring customers in and low rents to keep costs manageable. But rising rents and larger competitors have pushed some businesses off Thayer Street.
For small business owners like Davis, locations off of Thayer Street can accommodate more patrons and offer lower rent costs. While Durk’s Bar-B-Q was on Thayer Street, finding parking was “a huge issue” for patrons and managers alike.
When the Brown-owned parking lot on Brook Street — now the location of the Sternlicht Commons and Brown University Health and Wellness Center — was closed in 2019, Davis wrote that his restaurant experienced a drop in sales.
The parking lot’s closure was “the final nail in the coffin,” he wrote, and it “made moving a much easier decision.”
In late 2019, Durk’s moved off of Thayer Street and onto Aborn Street in downtown Providence. Since then, the store has seen “more of everyone coming into the restaurant.”
Davis cited not having to compete with the “fast, casual stuff on Thayer” as another plus of the new location.
“It’s kinda nice not being nestled between Chinatown (on Thayer) and Baja’s and right across the street from East Side Pockets,” he wrote.
After opening in 2008, Burns-Nachwalter’s NAVA sustained “pretty strong” business for its first five years. But nearby construction for the street’s 257 Thayer apartments added to parking challenges for non-student patrons, making it harder to attract them to the boutique, she said.
“I didn’t want to be primarily a store for college students,” she noted, adding that “our customer demographic was avoiding Thayer at all costs.”\ In 2015, NAVA left Thayer for Wickenden Street, where it remains today. With the move, Burns-Nachwalter gained access to a bigger space, parking for patrons and a community of small businesses that work together, she said. Today, Burns-Nachwalter is part of the Wickenden Area Merchants Association, a group of small businesses on or near Wickenden Street.
Dusseault first came to Thayer Street in 1995 from the adjacent Angell Street when a new lot opened. Dusseault said that she “jumped” at the opening, even though the property had a far higher rent than her original location.
Dusseault said that the new location provided her store “substantially more traffic,” setting up Pie in the Sky for another 25 years of business. But the store eventually shuttered in 2020 following pandemic-related challenges and rising costs, The Herald previously reported.
Dusseault said that decreasing business — compounded by the rise of online shopping — and high rents on Thayer Street convinced her that the location was “a dead end.”
After Pie in the Sky closed, she opened Old Bag Vintage on Ives Street. Since then, business “has been going well,” she said.
On Ives, not only is rent lower, but Dusseault can afford more time off, which was rare on Thayer. Old Bag Vintage is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays — as are most businesses on Ives Street.
Thayer through the years
With businesses constantly opening on the street as others leave, Thayer continues to evolve.
The Herald created a 23-year timeline of storefronts on Thayer Street between Bowen and Waterman streets, mapping year-by-year changes to each lot. To view the history of a lot, click a building on the map or select a store from the list.
To view a lot, click a building on the map or select a store from the list.
Currently selected year:2000
Selected lot: 260 Thayer St
Selected year: 2000
Established: 2000 or earlier
Store today: Avon
Description:Founded in 1938, Avon Cinema is the oldest Thayer Street storefront that remains today. The theater has been owned and operated by the Dulgarian family since its founding..
Longevity on Thayer
Some Thayer storefronts today — by virtue of their business models and popularity — have remained on the street for decades.
Thayer’s longest-standing institution, the Avon Cinema, draws on its own history to stay afloat.
The theater, which has been on Thayer for 85 years, has been owned and operated by the Dulgarian family since its opening. “People crave the familiar, the memories of a past experience,” Dulgarian wrote.
And after a slump in sales due to the pandemic, business has been picking up, he wrote.
Bud McCann, owner of Thayer’s franchised Allegra Marketing Print Mail since 2021, said that the store’s business model has contributed to its longevity. Allegra was previously known as Jo-Art Printing and Copy Service and has been on the street since before 2000.
Allegra’s clients are typically organizations — with the majority being University departments — instead of individuals, so foot traffic and location aren’t essential factors in attracting customers, McCann explained.
But even McCann’s business was not immune to pandemic-related challenges. At the height of COVID-19’s spread, revenue dropped around 26%, he noted.
Wassim Chedid, owner of Salon Persia, said that the salon’s original owner, Mario Persia, opened the salon on Thayer in 1972 because “it was the street to be at.”
Chedid started working at the salon in 2000 and took it over when Persia retired in 2003.
Though the store faced pandemic-related challenges, Salon Persia’s client demographics have remained relatively consistent throughout the years, with a mix of residents, faculty and students.
Turnover on Thayer
Though some stores have remained, Thayer Street in 2000 was radically different than it is today.
The Herald reconstructed a 23-year history of Thayer Street’s properties from Bowen Street to Waterman Street to identify lots with the highest and lowest turnover.
An animated map of Thayer Street depicting store turnover between 2000 and 2023. As the years progress, the buildings change color, representing the number of years since they last changed stores.
Eleven businesses — Salon Persia, Supercuts, East Side Pockets, Berk’s, Andrea’s, the Brown Bookstore, Kabob and Curry, Starbucks, Allegra, CVS and Avon — have been on the street since 2000. But 51 others that existed in 2000 can no longer be found on Thayer.
Most recently, the street has welcomed Yas Chicken and Tiger Sugar, while Blue State Coffee and Ayame Hibachi Express have shuttered. As of April 2023, Pokeworks — currently at 213 Thayer St. — is set to reopen across the street at 212 Thayer St.
The future of Thayer
With storefronts continuing to come and go, the future of Thayer Street remains to be seen.
“There’s a lot of turnover on Thayer Street,” Dusseault said. “The rent is very high … small shops don’t open there anymore because it’s too much.”
Burns-Nachwalter added that the street has evolved to take on a “corporate” character. Today, it has more big businesses and less community for small ones, she said.
“There’s a misconception that there are a lot more corporations (than) small businesses. I disagree with that to an extent,” Personeus said. “A lot of what is perceived to be a chain is owned by a local family.”
“You’re gonna love the Thayer that you fell in love with,” Personeus said. “I fell in love with Thayer when I was in high school, and that was in the late ’70s … I still love it to this day.”
Thayer Street “is going to be what the students and the community want it to be,” Personeus said. “As different influences come through Brown, you’ll see the street reflect that … sometimes (change) happens and you can’t control that cycle,” she said.
Personeus noted that while some may lament the coming and going of certain businesses, for her, this is part of the charm of Thayer. “Another generation of the street is being evolved, is being built,” she added. “To me, that’s kind of a fun thing … What’s coming next?”