A new store suddenly appeared in downtown Brunswick, Maryland last week, featuring Christmas gifts and decorations made by local artisans.
The store will be gone just as quickly as it appeared, as it is only scheduled to remain open through Christmas.
The Holiday Marketplace is the latest example of “pop-up stores,” a trend aimed at trying to revitalize downtown business districts.
They are temporary stores that move into abandoned properties, usually to cater to a seasonal need, and then shut down within weeks or months.
Examples include Christmas and Halloween stores during the holidays and lemonade or ice cream places during the summer.
Attleboro Economic Development Director Catherine Feerick said she is working on an application for a state grant for a pop-up store in the city’s downtown and would like to see up to four of them in the future.
She said she likes the concept, as the stores fill a temporary need while leaving the possibilities open for permanent businesses to move in later.
They are especially useful in places with a high vacancy rate.
A temporary store also offers an entrepreneur an opportunity to try out a new concept in an inexpensive way to see if it would make a viable permanent business, she said.
She calls it a “test drive” for new business ideas.
One idea for a pop-up store in Attleboro is a brick-and-mortar home for the annual Steampunk Festival.
The festival’s director, Heather Rockwood, said the store would be years in the future, but she envisions it housing different community activities, including a “makerspace” area for constructing theme-related items.
“A pop-up makerspace with a slate of Steampunk programming and materials, I think, would appeal to locals as something different and interesting to do locally and the steampunk communities as a destination for the programming,” she said.
John Mullin, director of the economic development center at University of Massachusetts Amherst, said pop-ups are a unique and often successful way to bring life to downtowns.
“They’re expanding dramatically,” he said. “I even saw one in Faneuil Hall in Boston. They’re there for two or three months and then they’re gone.
“It’s working very, very well.”
Mullin said he first noticed a similar concept in Germany about 10 years ago.
During the summer, empty lots in Dortmund and Berlin were turned into faux beachfront cocktail bars far from the ocean.
Business people would get a temporary liquor license, truck in loads of sand, play Beach Boys music, and put up a shack-like bar in the middle of the city, far from any real beach.
“It was a stunning success,” he said.
A similar approach has taken hold in Philadelphia, where weekend beer gardens are allowed on a rotating basis in some downtown parks.
The pop-up stores are becoming more frequent in New England, Mullin said, and are a benefit to the cities they are located in because they fill an empty storefront and bring foot traffic to the business district.
He said in the Amherst area, stores often pop up around graduation time for the five area colleges.
The goods sold by pop-up stores are moving beyond holiday and special-event products.
Booty by Brahants’ has had several temporary pop-up stores in the Boston area to sell Brazilian-style leggings and other workout gear.
The most recent one opened earlier this month in Lynnfield.
Back in Brunswick, Sophie Smith, who manages the Holiday Marketplace on behalf of an agency called Brunswick MainStreet, said this is the second year for the seasonal store.
Previously, she said, the place was a bakery, but it closed three years ago and the space was empty.
The holiday store not only brings foot traffic to downtown and adds excitement to the district, but showcases the goods and services of local people, from crafts to clothing, she said.
If things go well, those artisans may end up opening their own store, she said.
The possibilities for pop-up stores are endless and the trend will likely continue, she said.
Another program for downtowns that Attleboro’s Feerick said she is looking into is a new offering from the state called Massachusetts Vacant Storefront Program.
The program offers $10,000 in tax credits to businesses that open in vacant downtown stores in communities that have been accepted into the program.
So far 10 communities have applied and eight have been accepted, but none of them are from the Attleboro area. More applications will be considered in December.
Feerick said she is looking into the program, but at the moment believes there are more promising ways to go.
While pop-up stores offer a temporary fix, city officials say the long-term future of Attleboro’s downtown is tied to attracting housing to the business district, with the commuter rail station being the lure. The housing would create foot traffic in the downtown, they say.
“Transit-orientated development” is based on the idea that people want to live near public transportation so they can easily commute to the nearest big city, in this case Boston.
Attleboro Mayor Paul Heroux said the focus for his predecessor, Kevin Dumas, was to draw in businesses by making the downtown more attractive.
Brick sidewalks and replica gas streetlights were installed while landscaping and plantings were done on the main streets.
Heroux said his philosophy is that cities should create a customer base downtown that businesses will be attracted to.
He said he is using help with financing through tax reductions, federal Community Development Block Grants, and several other programs to encourage developers to come to Attleboro.
So far there are proposals for a large apartment building on the corner of South Main and Wall streets, across from train station, and the conversion of three mill buildings off Union Street into housing.
Those projects, if realized, would eventually make downtown Attleboro the home to hundreds of additional people.
If enough people live downtown, Heroux said, they will create a demand for goods and services and business will respond by moving in with restaurants and boutique stores.
The great thing about the proposals, he said, is they will provide a range of housing for different income groups.
Henry Renski, another professor at UMass, said the key to revitalizing a downtown is to create a “critical mass” of disposal income.
A downtown either needs a lot of a people, or a lesser amount of people who are high income.
He said if housing is built near a commuter rail station it creates customers for the downtown.
A rail station without the housing means commuters will get off the train and head straight for their car for the drive home without stopping to shop or eat.
That has long been the case in Attleboro with its large rail station. If those commuters live downtown, they will stay downtown and shop, he said.
Mullin said the great thing about downtown housing is it tends to attract age groups with the kind of disposable income needed to support unique shops and restaurants.
He said the big spenders are young adults without children and older people whose children have grown and moved away.
“You want pre-kid and post-kid,” he said.