AMESBURY — Local bookstore owner John Hugo gave the downtown a chance during the holiday season but his Amesbury Books pop-up store is no more.
"We gave it a shot," Hugo said. "It was kind of eye opening. I love the community, I love the people, the breweries and the restaurants. But there is just not enough walking traffic Monday through Thursday" to support a bookstore.
Hugo also owns The Book Rack at State and Pleasant streets in Newburyport, and bookstores in Beverly, Marblehead and Andover. He also opened a pop-up bookstore in Rockport in 2017 before opening Amesbury Books the day before Thanksgiving in 2018. He said neither location worked out for the long term.
"Amesbury is really very quiet," said Hugo, a Newburyport resident. "I wouldn't say dead but it is close to it."
He said Friday and Saturday were the best days to be in business in Amesbury’s downtown but sales would drop off drastically on Sunday.
"I know I could double the sales if I went full time but I wasn't anywhere near where I wanted to be," Hugo said. "I was at 10 percent of what sales were doing at say, The Book Rack. So, even if I made the inventory 10 times bigger, I didn't have the people coming in."
The customers who did visit Amesbury Books were very enthusiastic, he said.
"The people that were coming in were great and buying, and that was great and the conversion rate was good when they would come in," Hugo said.
He said Amesbury may want to look to Beverly, where a grant-funded volunteer organization, Beverly Main Streets, has been working to keep that city's downtown accessible to small business since 2002.
"They put dollars behind their ideas," he said. “There was a rent grant for four months of rent when I opened my store there three years ago. There was a sign grant and that gives people more of a chance to make it.”
The executive director of the Amesbury Chamber of Commerce, Kassandra Gove, also praised the Beverly Main Streets initiative, but added that Amesbury “might be too small” to do something similar.
“To my understanding, it is very specific to a certain area, like a downtown district,” Gove said. “A chamber of commerce serves a much broader purpose. We do a little bit of community programming and things like placemaking to help with foot traffic but that is not really the core of what we do, which is more of economic development and building up our business owners all across Amesbury.”
Making a business work full time in downtown Amesbury is a “chicken-and-the egg" situation, according to Hugo.
“You have really got to get all of the businesses together and say, ‘We’re all going to stay open, even if it is a (short day) Mondays and Tuesdays.’ That includes the restaurants," Hugo said. “As you know, in Newburyport and Portsmouth, everybody is open on Monday nights, not only stores but the restaurants. It is hard to get everyone on the same page but that would certainly help.“
Gove said many downtown business owners have indeed been working together “to be on the same page.“
“Most of them are also open on Sundays now. So Mondays and Tuesdays are their weekend,” she said. "But they are also open late on Fridays, Thursdays and Saturdays. They are working together and do have similar schedules and we have seen a significant change in the foot traffic over the past five years. The vacancy rate of our downtown shops has gone down over the past five years and that is how communities change. It is not just going to happen overnight.“
Each small business has a different benchmark as to what is acceptable, according to Gove, who spoke of another pop-up store, Willie Jo & Woodie's, which also opened on Main Street in November and recently signed a one-year lease to stay in the same location.
“Each business’s goals are different than what their neighbors' are,” she said. “Someone might do a business pop-up and decide it doesn’t work for him while someone else does a pop-up just down the street and it does work for them. That is because of their business plan and that is not something I or anyone else can change. That is up to them and good for them for having a plan and being able to make a decision on whether they are going to be successful or not.“
Staff writer Jim Sullivan covers Amesbury and Salisbury for The Daily News. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 978-961-3145. Follow him on Twitter @ndnsully.