When businessman Gary Abrams went into the clothing business in 1979, the city’s downtown was “very vibrant.”
“Stores would feed off each other,” he recalled.
Abrams doesn’t think the downtown is so vibrant now.
He and his wife, B.J., are closing Kolby’s, their store at 440 E. State St. The closing was due, in part, to retirement and the weak economy.
“A lot of things have changed [downtown] in the last 10 years,” Abrams said.
Abrams said the city hasn’t had a major chain store as a downtown anchor to draw customers since the early 1990s.
The downtown area roughly runs north and south on Ellsworth and Lincoln avenue and east and west on East Pershing and Second streets.
Glenda Gano, an assistant at Cornerstone Antiques, 508 E. State St., said the city used to have McKelvey’s and Strouss department stores.
And, recalled David Stratton, director of the Salem Historical Society, the city used to have national stores such as Sears.
Now, he added, “The nearest Sears is in Boardman.”
Decades ago, “People were downtown shopping on Friday night,” Abrams said
Over several years, the downtown began to devolve. When large chain stores located in Salem closed – Sears closed its Salem store in January 1993 – people headed for the malls.
“In some cases, chain stores left small stores in Salem with limited products, so people still had to go to the mall in order to get a larger selection from the same store,” Stratton said.
Shopping over the Internet also played a part in the city’s downtown decline.
“With free shipping, you could buy a computer with about anything you wanted and never have to leave your house,” Abrams said. Even his store added a website.
Now much of the downtown is a mix of offices, stores, restaurants and several vacant storefronts.
“Downtown has little for retail because it lost all the shoppers,” Abrams said.
Abrams announced the Kolby’s closing in November, though the store still has plenty of goods for sale.
A woman came in on a recent shopping excursion and told Abrams, “I don’t want to see you close. It’s sad.”
She added, “You’re wonderful people.”
Kirk Hawkins of Beloit stopped to talk to Abrams and said the closing “is a shame.”
Hawkins said that the store owners and workers “got to know you and know your family.”
Helen Hayes, the officer coordinator for the Salem High School Alumni Association that dates to 1883, said that the downtown “is changing, and not for the better. We need more [in the] downtown to get a presence on the street.”
Gano suggested that more antique shops move to Salem to draw customers to the downtown.
Audry Null, executive director of the chamber of commerce, said she believes the problems of the local economy are just a part of the larger, national economic slowdown.
But Stratton said the problem is that many downtown businesses just don’t offer merchandise for sale anymore.
“People who are running errands may pass a number of businesses but don’t have any business with them,” he said.