"People shopped here and they shopped downtown," says Brown. "They didn't have so many choices." Now, he says, potential customers can take the bus to Target. Plus, Brown says, the wealthier people moving into the neighborhood don't shop at his store. "Everybody moving here has a car," he says.
The Gap on Mass Ave closed in 2009 after 10 years. Floating Rock, the restaurant that moved into the vacant space, closed last week. In the past few years, Central Square has lost those businesses, a Wendy's, a high-end boutique, a Blockbuster Video, an art store, and a flower shop.
"People look here [at Central Square] and think, 'There's a million people on the street. This must be a great spot,' " says Brown. "But can you get a dollar out of them?"
THE LASER COMMUNITY
Ali Mohammad and Nadeem Mazen opened Danger!Awesome last year.
Over on Prospect Street, Nadeem Mazen and Ali Mohammad stand in their storefront, feet away from the state-of-the-art lasers they acquired while making a video for the band OK Go, involving laser-etched pieces of toast.
Mazen and Mohammad wear matching bracelets on their right wrists: thin, curved, laser-cut hunks of shiny metal that fan out like spikes or sharp leaves. Mazen's bracelet is silver; Mohammad's is the colors of a muted rainbow. The pair met at MIT.
Last year, they opened their business, Danger!Awesome — where laser technicians will etch anything you want on the object of your choice. "You can put your mom's face on an iPad" has become their tag line. Along with the OK Go video, they also helped with the latest Josh Ritter video, a stop-motion animation marvel done with laser-cut construction paper. Later, they sold those stills on eBay. In short, they're poster children for the New Economy.
Like Brown, Mohammad and Mazen don't pay their employees a living wage. Unlike Brown, several volunteers serve as laser technicians. The reason people are willing to volunteer, Mazen says, is that they want to play with lasers.
"I think part of the reason that [Danger!Awesome] is here is because Nadeem and I wanted a place where we could go laser stuff — where anybody can come and laser stuff," Mohammad says. "There's a community growing around us."
Mohammad's community is vastly different from the one congregated down the street on the benches of Carl Barron Park. His people are young Cambridge tech professionals. Many of the customers who visit the store, he says, are tech employees on their lunch breaks. Others are passers-by — families, mostly — attracted by the novelty of a laser store. The rest of their customers travel from vast distances to cut things with lasers.
"One of my favorite things that ever happened was these two guys [who] saw a design of a violin, showed up with a couple sheets of plywood — they made a violin and left," Mohammad says. "That's the future to me. There used to be a time when you went to a document center to make a copy; now it's stuff. You can print out stuff! That's so exciting to me." Since the violin incident, someone else has lasered a ukulele.