for Montclair Local

Bloomfield Avenue is about to have a little less bling.

On Nov. 15, Craig Brady, owner of Craig Brady Fine Jewelers,  at 493 Bloomfield Ave., announced that the shop intends to shutter, alongside liquidation sales of all inventory. “It is with mixed emotions that we share that we have decided to go out of business,” wrote Brady on the store’s Facebook page. “We have truly enjoyed being your jeweler!”

Brady, who is the former proprietor and owner of Valley Jewelers on Valley Road, has been in the business for several decades. After 20 years of operation on Valley Road, he moved the business to its current location, where it has been in operation for three years. The move to the location on Bloomfield Avenue was sparked with a lot of hope that didn’t turn out as Brady had anticipated.

“I knew [the space] was pricey, but thought the shopping district would work out well for us,” said Brady. “It’s been kind of tough.”

The shop is sandwiched between several other trendy downtown storefronts, including a barre studio, and a meditation and wellness center. “It seemed like there was a lot going on,” said Brady, who chose the former bank site partly because it had a vault, but also thought the space was “up and coming.” He signed a five-year lease for the 2,500 square foot store to the tune of $10,000 per month.

The aftermath of Brady’s storefront is just one story out of many that can be found in the continuing saga about the retail sector’s struggle to survive from the malls to “main street.” Headlines captivate readers sharing news about how retailers across the country continue to shutter shops and downsize their offerings due to shrinking foot traffic and higher expenses. Yet even as the most recent headline maker involved high-end retailer Barney’s announcing it would close up shop, the National Retail Federation reported that for every store closing, five new stores cropped up in their place.

According to CoStar information provided by Eric Weston of Sheldon Gross Realty, on average, commercial rentals in Montclair have stayed vacant for five to 10 months in the final quarter of 2019. This is down from an average of 25 to 30 months in the first quarter of the year. Asking rent in the fourth quarter of 2019 for Montclair averaged at $33 per square foot, while market rent dipped below $31 per square foot in the same quarter. From the first quarter of 2018 until the fourth quarter of 2019, leasing activity has also taken a hit, down to under 2,000 square feet leased over the period from the high of over 12,000 square feet leased in the fourth quarter of 2018.

Weston, vice president of Sheldon Gross Realty, which specializes in commercial real estate told Montclair Local that some of the recent statistics are “counter intuitive.”

“Market rents started dropping down in the second quarter of 2018 and shortly thereafter, the vacancy rates shot up considerably from 16 percent to 26 percent,” he said. “Normally you’d think that when the rents go down, the vacancy rate would go down.”

Vacancies and a drop in foot traffic are part of the story, but according to Brady, a lack of parking did not help his store much either. Several ongoing construction projects promise to bring an increasing number of fresh, new apartments and storefronts, but while they are under construction, parking spaces have been taken away. “The parking situation has crippled us somewhat,” he said. “I would get calls from people saying they would come by, but they couldn’t find parking, so they didn’t come in.”

Mike Guerriero, who owns Gelati, up the street from Craig Brady, has occupied his current location at 571 Bloomfield Ave. for about four years. He spent time walking the main drag for many years before opening up there. “We fell in love with the shops,” he said. “The people here made us want to open our business.”

When his store opened, Guerriero said, he advertised ample parking nearby to motivate customers. However, the subject of parking has become a thorny issue due to changes in regulation, such as an increase in fees from 50 cents an hour to 75 cents, and changing the hours that parking regulations are enforced to 7 p.m. 

“We have paid between $5,000-$6,000 in parking fines for ourselves and our employees,” he said. “At one point there were enough spots in town, but now customers are the ones not getting the parking.”

As part of an initiative to incentivize foot traffic, the Business Improvement District (BID) has promoted free parking for two hours during metered hours through the holiday season. Jason Gleason, acting executive director for the BID, said that despite the obstacles merchants face, Montclair is still a sought-after place. Noting that the vacancy rate isn’t close to 50 percent, he added that while the businesses have experienced some turnover, new businesses are coming up in their place. “There is a communal vibe and effort of fighting the fight together and I do believe we will be just fine regardless of what appears to be many things stacked against small business retailers,” he said. 

During this year’s holiday tree lighting ceremony, Church Street was “packed from Java Love all the way to Montclair House Grill and the stage,” he said. “Restaurants were packed that night and on Church Street, I saw retailers were doing sales.”

Gleason added that planned parking decks will be opening in the foreseeable future, which will help to alleviate some of the current parking space crunch.

Meanwhile, Brady plans to stay open until the inventory runs out, and faces a two-year lease that needs to be figured out. “This is a popular area,” said Brady. “The center is where it should be the busiest. It’s disappointing. I thought I was getting in on the ground floor and I would grow with it, but it didn’t grow with me.”