Coventry Village hits its stride with help from a nascent garment district

"The Mayor of Coventry Village" has been part of the three-block shopping strip in Cleveland Heights for 43 years, ever since he was a soda jerk at a drugstore there. Back then, it was still a collection of delis, meat markets, upholsterers, dry cleaners, and jewelers, serving what was a heavily Jewish neighborhood.

After years of change, The Mayor — better known to most as Tom Fello — can stand outside his Coventry restaurant, Tommy's, and look north to a block that until the last three or four years was a graveyard of dead businesses. Now he sees an explosion of trendy clothing stores, most of them owned by local proprietors.

To the south, long lines stretch outside the Grog Shop and its downstairs club, the B-Side Liquor Lounge, its horde of patrons spilling into nearby restaurants. And at Coventry's southern tip, he can see the long-empty Centrum movie theater, soon to be home to a comedy club, improv school, and a new gastropub.

 The former hippie strip, once known as "Cleveland's Greenwich Village," has grown up, weathered changes, and diversified. And Fello, once the new kid on the block, has become a mentor to another generation of merchants.

 "You walk into 65-70 percent of the stores, and you see the owner there," Fello says with an air of satisfaction. For years, that local bent has fueled the businesses on Coventry. And for just as long, many merchants had looked down upon the prospect of chain stores stepping into the mix.

Steve Presser, who opened the novelty store Big Fun in 1990, remembers when higher rents later in that decade led to talk that Coventry would need to welcome deep-pocketed chains. Around that time, the Winking Lizard, Johnny Malloy's, and Panini's started to move in. At the same time, the influx of nightspots was throwing off the balance of daytime and nighttime traffic.

"The public took a negative look at Coventry and felt it was selling out and losing its identity," Presser recalls. "You heard 'The Gap is coming!' As independent storeowners, we were concerned about the direction of the street."

Further hampering Coventry's momentum was the city's tear-up of the street for extended repairs in the early 2000s, making it look more like a war zone than a hub for retail and dining. At the time, the street's landlords united to seize the opportunity to make their own improvements. Using funds from a merchants' association they had created, they installed artist-designed ironwork planters and distinctive benches up and down the street, forming an attractive and inviting streetscape that was completed in 2006.

That same year marked the arrival of the hip "made in the U.S.A." clothing store American Apparel in a former appliance store, next door to the longtime hippie boutique Sunshine Too. If the new entry flew in the face of the street's conventional wisdom on welcoming outside ownership, it also provided an alternative to Coventry's typical Grateful Dead T-shirts and tie-dyed peasant skirts, and set in motion a retail evolution that continues today.

American Apparel's arrival launched a small wave of locally owned clothing stores, including menswear shops Brigade and Next, the shoe store Heart and Sole, and women's clothing shop Blush. What resulted is what merchants have dubbed a "mini clothing district." Even the venerable Attensen's Antiques has just turned its basement, once filled with musty old books, into a vintage clothing shop specializing in items from the '60s and '70s. 

Blush, which opened in November 2009, is emblematic of the new breed of Coventry merchant. It's owned by local jewelry maker Laurie Klopper and former Little Italy boutique owner Gina Dudik, both of them young mothers who hoped to ease one another's busy schedules. Now business has grown so much that they're ready to bring on a full-time manager.

A key piece of the nascent garment district fell into place when the prominent corner space on Coventry and Hampshire — the former spot of the legendary Irv's Deli — became home to Avalon Exchange, a Pittsburgh-based resale clothing store. Opened in late October, it provided a sort of gateway to the clothing district and offered a new approach, specializing in fashionable contemporary resale — like a more upscale, less mall-label-driven Plato's Closet.

 Owner Stuart McLean had looked at the building back in the late 1990s and even bid on a different Coventry spot in 2006.

 "I knew it was kind of a bohemian area, kind of a youth enclave," he says. "That's the kind of locations we look for. I feel like now the timing is better than ever. There's not a lot of spaces available on Coventry, and we got one of the best."

McLean invited his daughter, Chelsea, to move from Hawaii to Cleveland to manage the store. So far, she's been delighted by the change of scenery.

"The energy here is so great," she says. "We're already seeing repeat customers. People come in and they're on their phone calling their friends saying, 'I've found this great place!' We've had all kinds of people, from college students to old Italian ladies."

 In this way, the new retail district has capitalized on Coventry's greatest asset: Its appeal to a wide swath of visitors, from young people to old, and from morning till late night.

The empty storefronts of just a few years ago are now down to just a single unoccupied space: the cramped quarters formerly occupied by the Grog Shop before it moved to the other end of the street in 2003.

"We're working on that," says Dan Ely, manager at the high-fashion boutique Brigade. "I'd like to see a place like the Tremont Tap House or Luxe in there," referring to casual but chic hangouts on the other side of town.

 Meanwhile, Presser — the street's sparkplug to Fello's anchor — is working to get the newer merchants involved. There are plans for holiday caroling, sidewalk sales, brochures, and a Coventry blog to be penned by Klopper from Blush.

Suzanne DeGaetano has owned the used bookstore Macs Backs since 1993. Like many on the street, she exudes a mix of half-hippie idealism, half-pragmatic business owner.

"Things are going in the right direction," she says. "Coventry has always been a place for people to gather. One of the reasons we established the business on Coventry is because of the diversity of Coventry. I have a photo I treasure, taken during one of the street fairs in the '70s. There's black people and white people mixed together watching a band. I think it's a healthy thing. I want Coventry to be a welcoming place for everybody."

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