Daniel Rubin: Narberth bridging a gap for mom-and-pop businesses

Tracy Tumolo, owner of the folk-art shop Sweet Mabel, is among the merchants hurt by the bridge closing.
Tracy Tumolo, owner of the folk-art shop Sweet Mabel, is among the merchants hurt by the bridge closing. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff)
Posted: October 26, 2012

It didn't take long for the expat community to discover that Pat and Seiko Dailey had opened a Japanese market by the Narberth train tracks. Finding the place was another matter.

"People used to call us and we'd have to talk them in, like aircraft controllers," Pat says. "Because no thoroughfare goes through town."

When he thought about the borough he chose for his business in 2003, Shangri-la came to mind - that mythical place, untouched by time and totally isolated.

"It is hard to find," says Tracy Tumolo, owner of Sweet Mabel, a folk-art shop at the foot of the Narberth Avenue Bridge. "And now it's hard to get to."

Since August, the bridge outside Tumolo's door has been closed to cars. To those from Narberth and in the surrounding Lower Merion - "Nearberth" - borough residents call the outland, it's more than a bridge. It's a lifeline, the way to drive from southern end of the village of 4,200 people to the commercial center.

That center is a delicate ecosystem - 75 mom-and-pop shops around Haverford Avenue that cater to every need in a community with a taste for a Thai bistro, patisserie, and Japanese lunch.

Its success is so critical that the borough council last week voted to spend $300,000 to repair the bridge - only a year and a half before they'll spend that amount again to replace it.

How could a bridge be that important? The detour takes motorists no more than seven extra minutes of travel.

"The thing about Narberth," says Drew Johnson, owner of the Greeks pub, "it's a convenient place to shop. You park your car, get a lottery ticket, go to the dry cleaner's, get breakfast."

But make that trip a little inconvenient, he said, and customers melt away. "People are lazy and change their habits."

Merchants I talked to said they appreciated that borough pols felt their pain. Only 10 percent of the shops are owned by the proprietors, and Dailey, who leads the business association, says landlords are not willing to look the other way if rents aren't paid.

Dissenters

"They aren't bad people," he said. "They say, 'There's only one Main Line.' " Meaning: The landlords will find a tenant who can pay.

The council voted 5-2 for the repairs. The dissenters reflected the opinion of residents like Jonathan Goldstein, an attorney who also owns commercial property in the borough.

"We're essentially buying two bridges," he groused.

The cost to the average taxpayer for the temporary bridge could be as high as $140. He noted, "There are a fair number of people out of work here."

Borough manager Bill Martin says there was no easy solution. Council had to also consider the cost of lost business. The merchants' group estimates sales are down 10 to 15 percent since August - in already trying times.

Which makes the repair calendar all the worse. The job won't be finished until early January. There go the holidays.

A shrug

Patrick Rurange, owner of Le Petit Mitron, expressed that thought with a phrase that sounded like pphhew, as he made a gesture of a jet passing over his head.

"What can you do?" asked his wife, Isabelle, shrugging. Many of their customers stop in for a pain au chocolat on the way to work - though not as many as before.

Bridge replacement isn't to start until spring 2014, and traffic will be barred for at least 10 more months. Tumolo of Sweet Mabel says she'd have had to move if she had to wait until then for cars to return.

For the holidays, she'd love to see a pop-up park replace the orange mesh and barriers. She'd call it Narbridge, and people could walk among planters, pine needles, festive lights.

Except there's no money for that, which was exactly why Heidi Boise, borough council's only architect, voted against doing the work twice. "See?" Boise said. "It's wasteful."


Contact Daniel Rubin

at 215-854-5917, drubin@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @danielrubin or Facebook at http://ph.ly/DanRubin.

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