Crossing fingers

A long-time Downtown Crossing shopkeeper sees the neighborhood’s silver lining
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  April 8, 2009


When Red Sox World Series trophies need buffing, third-generation Downtown Crossing silversmith Mike Davis gets the phone call. The same goes for when Patriots nick Super Bowl trophies with their bulbous bling, or when Paul Revere’s teapot needs some TLC, or when Bob Vila, also a customer, has tarnished goods. Today, Davis is polishing three sets of ornate flatware for a woman who will soon pass the heirlooms to her about-to-wed granddaughter. Whether they’re careless celebrities or cautious civilians, Bostonians surrender their trust and treasures into Davis’s charcoal hands.

As silversmiths go, Davis is practically the last tradesman standing. His workshop at 36 Bromfield Street is a throwback to the days when Boston was regarded as a hub of the storied American silver industry. An open-shaft steel-cage elevator takes visitors from the beaten first-floor hallway to the fifth-floor Davis Silver Company, the store his late grandfather John Davis founded in 1945. There’s no hot-water line, so Davis keeps a cauldron steaming on the exposed pipes. There’s no computer, either, so Davis uses hand-written invoices to keep track of the trophies, spoons, and teapots scattered on his dusty wooden shelves.

John, his grandfather, opened the shop after leaving Tuttle Silver, where he started as a 12 year old and worked his way from polisher to foreman. When Tuttle moved from Southie to Connecticut, John refused to relocate, and instead brought his bench to Bromfield. There, he eventually taught his son, Ed, who ran the business until retiring 12 years ago, turning the operation over to Davis, his son. The cement walls, splintered window frames, and even the rusty air are essentially the same as they were the day John opened shop.

“I don’t remember when I didn’t work here,” says Davis, 55, who has run a full-time solo operation since 1996. “I’ve been coming to this place since I was at least five years old.”

It would be understandable if Davis — whose shop has outlived the refugee Russian tailors who filled 36 Bromfield in the ’50s, as well as most lawyers and accountants who rented in the ’70s, and the nonprofits that got priced out in the ’90s — was reluctant to welcome the glossy, near-billion-dollar projects that pols, planners, and mega-corporate interests have slated for his ancestral soldering grounds. But despite being a near-anachronism in Downtown Crossing as it transitions into the 21st century, Davis is a surprising ally of change. Whether they’re developed with mirrored skyscrapers or magnificent prewar paragons, Davis has the same ideal for every lot from Temple Place to School Street: the buildings should be accessible, occupied, and bustling with shoppers.

The future of Downtown Crossing has become a hot potato in the embryonic 2010 mayoral race, as all three declared candidates have criticized perpetual-but-so-far-unannounced contender Mayor Tom Menino for his handling of the $700 million Filene’s project, which promised a hybrid hotel-retail-residence complex. That effort, which is central to the Downtown Crossing revitalization process, but has so far amounted to a universally scorned square-block hole in the ground, was suspended in November due to financial troubles after five months of demolition. Candidate and city councilor Sam Yoon called the halted project a “glaring failure”; fellow candidate and councilor Michael Flaherty blasted Hizzoner for letting control fall under the authority of — hold your nose — a New York–based company. Menino has defended himself by saying that Filene’s is a victim of the international economic tsunami, plain and simple.

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Related: Barbarisi assigned to the Sox; more changes coming, Blowing up, Sox to win 98 in '09?, More more >
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