The navy-rimmed shelves of Catch A Falling Star usually overflow with color. In mid-May, a few of them still did: a plush rainbow caterpillar looked ready to crawl off the shelf in one corner, while half a dozen pastel-clad rabbits, each the size of a child’s hand, sat in tiny doll chairs on a low table. They seemed to be soaking in their last moments in the Depot Square staple just like longtime customers.
But most shelves were already barren and white. Last Saturday, May 28, was Catch A Falling Star’s final day of business in Lexington after its nearly two-decade run in town.
Though the store’s Winchester and Belmont locations will remain open, owner Deran Muckjian is gutted about having to close this store. “I’m really tied to the community,” he said, comparing leaving Lexington to a breakup, “an end of something I didn’t want to see ended.” Muckjian avoided working in the Lexington location close to its closure because it made him too sad.
“It’s the right business decision – but I still feel like I’m letting down the Town, and I feel bad about it,” he said.
Dick Malcolm has worked at Catch a Falling Star in Lexington as a sales associate for about two years. He has been in the building often and compared the mood in the last month before closing to “conducting a 28-day wake.”
Muckjian has been in the toy business for over 40 years. “It’s just been in my blood,” he explained. As a child, Muckjian worked in his grandfather’s toy store and bike shop in Cambridge. After a couple decades working for other toy companies, he followed in his grandfather’s footsteps and opened his own store in Winchester about 25 years ago, followed by a second location in Lexington roughly six years later, and a third location in Belmont most recently. Muckjian remembers how much his grandfather treasured his store; he feels the same about Catch a Falling Star. “It’s been worth it, and I never looked back.”
In the decades he has owned and operated his own toy stores, Muckjian has faced his share of challenges. Like many small business owners, he’s taken financial hits from the meteoric growth of Amazon and online shopping over the years. Muckjian had been able to weather the business challenges posed by that stiff competition because he gives Catch a Falling Star a human face and touch, which inspire customer loyalty: “My strength is about birthdays, and wrapping, and customer service, and listening to every customer,” he said.
But in the past couple of years, “a lot of factors” compounded to necessitate the Lexington store closure.
The bottom line, for Muckjian, was that he could not reach an agreement to justify renewing his lease with the landlord. Muckjian wanted a rent reduction in order to keep the store open, while the landlord believed he could get more, and “it went no further than that…It was like a mutual separation.” Muckjian bears no personal animosity toward his landlord, noting “he has to do what’s right for his building and what’s right for himself.”
The pandemic has certainly taken its toll as well. “I haven’t rebounded as quickly in [the Lexington] store as I have in my other two stores,” Muckjian said. While “Lexington…has never been my best sales store,” COVID-19 pushed the store from self-sustaining to a financial burden. “In the beginning stages, my volume started really dropping off in a big fashion and that stole my revenue,” Muckjian said. “And…it’s never recovered.”
The Center Streetscape project to redo the Center’s sidewalks and roadways hasn’t helped, Muckjian added, though he had already decided to leave Lexington by the time the project started up again this construction season. He does not doubt that the project will beautify the Center in the long term – but disagrees with the timing. “I think the Town made a mistake,” he said. “It’s going to be beautiful when it’s done – but to throw it right on top of how we all struggled to get out of COVID…that was …poor [decision-making]” in his view.
Other local business managers have described both challenges and opportunities of this construction, as previously reported. The Town has consistently sought to broadcast that local businesses remain open through physical signs and online communications.
According to Muckjian, two other financial factors made it more challenging for him to remain in Lexington than in Winchester and Belmont: the higher rent charged by his landlord, and the Town’s split tax rate.
Muckjian paid significantly more rent per square foot in Lexington than in either his Belmont or Winchester location, he noted. “Lexington, Belmont, Winchester – they’re all [similar] in demographics…but I pay about 40% more rent [in] Lexington than I do in Belmont or Winchester,” he said. In fact, Muckjian has about 500 more square feet in his Winchester location – but paid more total rent in Lexington.
Rent aside, under Lexington’s split tax rate, commercial properties are taxed at higher levels than residential properties – and at higher levels than in either Winchester or Belmont, Muckjian noted.
For Fiscal Year 2022, Lexington residents paid $13.80 per $1,000 of residential property assessed value; commercial and industrial tenants paid almost double, or $27.18 per $1,000 or assessed value. Tax rates for both were slightly lower in FY22 compared to FY21.
Winchester has a split tax rate, too. But its taxes are actually lower for businesses than for residents – for FY22, residents pay $12.51 per $1,000 of assessed value, while commercial tenants pay $11.89.
In Belmont, both residents and businesses pay $11.56 for the same assessed value in FY22.
Needham, on the other hand, is one example of a community with a relatively comparable split tax rate to Lexington with a $13.37 residential rate and a $26.43 commercial rate for FY22.
Muckjian knew he could have applied for American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding from the Town earlier this year, which has benefited several other local businesses and nonprofits. While he had availed himself of other pandemic-related relief grants, he chose not to apply for local ARPA funding because he already knew he was leaving Lexington when the application opened. “It was not the right thing to do – not for the Town, and not for merchants who were staying in town who needed the money more than I did.”
“Lexington was very nice to offer that,” he added, though in his view, “it was a little late in the ballgame.” The Select Board authorized ARPA funding for a grant program to support local businesses and nonprofits in January 2022 in response to the Omicron wave of COVID-19, and authorized additional funding for this program in April.
To Muckjian, his store’s closure exemplifies a deeper problem with affordability in Lexington’s Town Center for local business owners burdened by high rents and commercial tax rates.
“I think the Town has to really look at what the Center wants to be and how they want their Town to be,” he said. “It’s very difficult for small businesses to be successful in that Town as long as the rent factor and the real estate tax factor are as high as [they are].”
Based on his experience with his other two stores beyond Lexington, Muckjian thinks that to attract shoppers, the Town needs more. “I’ve had a harder time in Lexington, I think, because the mix of stores is just not enough reason for people to come down and shop.”
Malcolm, the sales associate, agreed. “A store like this… it’s part of what should be the retail mix of a downtown like this,” he said.
Muckjian’s customers have been “shocked and…sad to see me go,” he said.
Elizabeth Brach has shopped at Catch a Falling Star “for most of their 18 years in business,” she wrote in an email. “Anytime I needed a baby gift, birthday gift for one of my kids or now for my grandkids – I always stopped there first…And they would wrap toys for you!” The toys suited infants and older children alike – and the location of the store was convenient since she is also a patron of Paul Mammola Salon “right around the corner.”
Brach regularly ran into neighbors at Catch a Falling Star. “There is a kind of comfort in going to local businesses where they know you and it is friendly – you count on it,” she wrote.
Brach discovered the store was closing when she stopped by a few weeks ago and saw the signs out front. “I was so upset,” she wrote. “The shelves were empty and it was so sad.”
She concurred with Muckjian and Malcolm that the closure highlighted a bigger problem with turnover in the Town Center, citing the much-discussed closure of Panera Bread last fall. “It just seems like we can’t keep businesses here,” she wrote. When Brach moved to Lexington 35 years ago, “there were 3 bookstores and a Gap clothing store. There was also a wine store that sold craft beer, multiple antique stores, discount clothing stores, a sporting goods store – the list goes on and on.”
In Brach’s view, “store closings in Lexington are pushing us to go elsewhere for items we need or online – this is bad for Lexington business, as well as for Lexington residents.”
Muckjian has sought to contribute to the Lexington community throughout his time in town, including by supporting charitable initiatives – and employing high school students. “I nurture them, I train them so they understand…how difficult and how important it is” to run a small business, he said. “And they all grow from it.” He’s never had to recruit, he added, because students are so enthusiastic about the chance to work in his store.
“I care about each town I’m in, and I care about the community, and I care about the kids,” Muckjian said.
Now, he plans to focus on his stores in Belmont and Winchester. Muckjian is grateful to his Lexington customers for their years of support, he said – and some have told him they will make the longer trip to visit his other locations.
“Lexington is a wonderful town…Lexington, Belmont, Winchester they’re all wonderful people, wonderful families, wonderful towns. And I know Lexington will survive, but it’s just sad that there’s no toy store,” Muckjian said. “Where do the kids come when they come downtown?”
“Maybe someone else will open a toy store in Lexington one day, I’m not sure,” he said. “But I don’t see myself coming back and doing it.”
The Select Board approved a liquor license application from Lexington Liquors Corp. for an all-alcohol package store at 7 Depot Square, Catch a Falling Star’s previous location, in a 4-1 vote at their March 21 meeting. Concord Property Management, which manages the property on behalf of its owners, 1775 Mass Ave LLC, declined to comment for this article.
Updated Saturday, June 4 at 4:06 p.m.