In his memoir “Townie’’ about growing up in Haverhill in the 1970s, best-selling author Andre Dubus III recalled shopping with his mother downtown for school clothes.
He described large department stores and Barrett’s men’s clothing store in particular, where it seemed every local man and boy went to buy his best clothes.
The once vibrant large retail downtown with successful shoe factories nearby eventually disappeared, replaced with smaller, specialized shops and offices.
“Haverhill has changed,” said Melinda Barrett, who runs Barrett’s Specialty Foods at 103 Merrimack St.
There, in the same building the elders of her family ran Barrett’s men’s clothing store, she operates a deli that supplies downtown shoppers and workers with fresh sandwiches and cold drinks.
What also helps make the downtown successful is the art work that adorns various spots in the city center, she said.
“The use of art to beautify and educate at the same time is wonderful,’’ Barrett said. “The shoes (large shoe sculptures reminiscent of Haverhill’s shoe-making past) around town was a team effort, which included artists, the chamber (of commerce), the Historical Society, as well as Team Haverhill. I am not sure that there is any way to correlate art and the bottom line, but its presence has to be seen as a positive.’’
Image sells, or at least that is how Haverhill businesses see it. Art contributes to the way a city presents itself and attracts visitors who want to spend money, merchants said.
They said art work plays an important role downtown, especially during this revitalization period. Art work displayed downtown such as murals painted by students, the sculpture of a sturgeon (a prehistoric fish that lives in the Merrimack River today) and the giant painted shoes around town improve the appearance of the community.
The Barking Dog Ale House restaurant at 77 Washington St. engages its customers with art — and not just for them to look at.
“People seek certain characteristics in the places they choose to live and work,’’ said Barking Dog General manager Chad Faria. “Places with entertainment options, public interaction, lively streets, and recreational and educational amenities are preferred, along with arts and culture activities. Once a month, we host a ‘paint night’ on our third floor and it is pretty clear by the turnout that art is a big part of Haverhill’s community. We expect 25 to 30 people for out next paint night May 22.’’
Carry the idea a bit further, and you’ll get some customer participation at all levels, said Alan Boisvert, owner of Keon’s restaurant at 105 Washington St. He believes art attracts good customers and gives diners the atmosphere they enjoy. Having art contests sponsored by the city could benefit the artists, restaurants and local businesses, he said.
“Creative Haverhill (a local arts organization) has done a wonderful job in getting the art in place so far and should be commended for their efforts,’’ he said.
The biggest piece of art displayed downtown is the Gateway Mural, a painting covering the side of a four-story building on Essex Street. It displays images of well-known people from Haverhill’s past and present, including author Dubus, movie king Louis B. Mayer, Macy’s stores founder Rowland Macy, and popular TV show host Tom Bergeron.