Eulogy for Louis Boston

The demise of Louis heralds a new era of Boston blandification and the triumph of the ho-hum.

On Friday, Debi Greenberg announced that this July, she will shutter her independent retail outfit, Louis. For many of us, this doesn’t come as a surprise. Though Louis has been a fixture in the city for more than 85 years—first on Newbury Street and then in the Seaport—it’s had the stink of doom about it for many moons. But god, I’ll miss it. The demise of Louis heralds a new era of Boston blandification and the triumph of the ho-hum.

Greenberg took over the business from her father in 2003, transforming it from a menswear emporium to an ambitiously indie high-end boutique for men, women, and home. In 2010, she was coaxed to South Boston’s waterfront by Joe Fallon, who built her a temporary shop with the promise of incorporating a glitzy new store into his condo high-rise, to be built at a later date.

Most excoriate Greenberg for abandoning Newbury Street to gamble on the as-yet-defined waterfront. Her move was absolutely premature—Louis occupied a corner of a massive construction site. Office buildings went up first, not luxury condos. There wasn’t any foot traffic. Louis devotees could park easily and shop, but lacking retail life around it, Louis was the only draw, meaning shopping there was no longer a casual venture. You had to commit to Louis. Greenberg had made a bad bet.

Before she moved there, Greenberg occupied the former museum of the Boston Society of Natural History, a massive Civil War-era manse protected from Boylston and Newbury Street’s hoi polloi by a moat of lawn. Equally intimidating were the late-model Mercedes and Ferraris valet-parked in Louis’ tiny adjacent lot—a turn-on for high-rollers and Boston’s anemic celeb crowd. Was there hired paparazzi, too? Perhaps.

Like many casual Newbury Street shoppers, I regarded Louis from a distance. Who needed it? But one day, in a pique of democratic spirit, I scaled one of its two intimidating staircases to what I hoped (nay, prayed) was the front door. Or maybe it was the service entrance.

Louis on Newbury did purvey the most beautiful things on Earth: French-made lamps made entirely of white feathers; exquisite hand-crafted Goyard trunks stacked with Assouline books; the most tantalizing clothes and shoes (mostly in tragically hip charcoal gray hues) from designers across the pond I’d never heard of, and never will—it was all breathtakingly seductive, set against the monumental 1864 architecture. Louis was out of some kind of furious retail dream. Of course, the prices were nightmarish. After a few minutes, hunting for the tags seemed absurd. This stuff wasn’t for me. And yet, I understood the attendant costs—rent, endless scouting in Europe, heating the joint, that hired D.J. by the stairs spinning records to an empty store—and all of it was generally cheaper than a ticket to Paris. I’d never be a regular there, but secretly thanked those Bostonians who were. They were true patrons.

Even when it moved to the Seaport, Louis continued to counter Boston’s descent into banality. For every CVS and Club Monaco, for every international “luxury” brand owned by faceless conglomerates, we could always say, well, we’ve got Louis. That suburbanites from Wellesley were still willing to brave Boston traffic for a pair of Robert Clergerie boots reassured many that in spite of appearances, we valued fashion. Highly. We weren’t lemmings. An entire economy thrived under the radar, supporting mysterious brands and Greenberg’s near-constant shopping trips abroad. Or so we thought.

Greenberg wasn’t a friend to many. She had a fierce, street-thug way about her that put off countless people in the industry. She wasn’t the snooty fashionista one might expect, but that may have played well in Boston: She was real.

Of course, when Louis goes, we’ll still have independent retailers—little boutiques continue to exist in Harvard Square or Chestnut Hill. But oh, their undersized ambitions. And I’ll continue to blame Boston’s lack of planning for so many things, up to and including the loss of Louis. World-class cities need exciting retail and restaurants as much as they need museums, good public transportation, and fine architecture. From New York to San Francisco, creative zoning protects independent retailers from rapacious real estate pricing.

A piss-poor, cheap-to-execute, super-block plan was pursued in the waterfront, precluding a vibrant neighborhood feel. We’re stuck with that for a lifetime. Lack of public transportation in the area cut off the flow of shoppers to a mere trickle. Lack of housing and basic services (food markets, a cleaners, small restaurants, salons, etc.) leaves little for anyone to do down there. Some of this will change as those stubby, bloated buildings continue to go up. But they’ll be built on the ashes of Louis, burying the one thing that made shopping in Boston the stuff of dreams.