The musky stink of urine hangs thick in the air on the northeast corner of Broad and Third streets. Once a prosperous storefront, it has long served as a shelter for vagrants escaping the bustle of a nearby busy GRTC bus stop.
By contrast, freshly cut sawdust sweetens the air next door. A half-dozen apartments and a new storefront soon will fill this once-blighted space, helping form a bridge between the city's Arts District and the entertainment venues of Richmond CenterStage, The National and the Greater Richmond Convention Center.
Next door to that new storefront is an invisible yet undeniable indicator that progress has arrived in this long-blighted stretch of the city's main thoroughfare.
At first blush, 707 Menswear looks like it caters to those with flamboyant tastes but modest budgets.
Cheaply made men's suits in colors like banana, grape and traffic-cone orange hang on racks near the ceiling.
But there's more going on here than meets the eye. Look past the $75 zoot suits with their matching hats and shoes, and a rack displays handmade shirts priced at $125 next to designs by Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, along with stylishly tailored suits starting at just under $800.
At the rear of the shop, past the display of $350 Allen Edmonds wingtips (choice of the past three U.S. presidents), the store's outdated pine-paneled walls give way to a fitting and style consultation room with hardwood floors and a slate-stone display wall that's flanked by low, ultra-modern leather furniture.
"707 has been in Richmond for a long time," says Dayal Baxani, who in his mid-20s is the second generation of Baxanis to run this menswear and tailor shop. He doesn't like to talk about those multihued zoot suits. He's rebranding the store as a boutique men's shop that'd be a welcome addition to Carytown or Short Pump.
"People come in and they say, ‘Oh, my gosh, I had no idea you existed,' " Baxani says.
East Broad, once fashionable as a hub for shoppers or those just wanting to be seen, began its slow decline in the 1950s and 60s. The city had pulled up the streetcars a decade earlier, and by the mid-1970s, white flight meant retail followed affluent customers to the suburbs for years.
"When I was a kid, I remember when there was Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers," recalls Baxani. "When they left, you started getting more ... dollar stores."
Slowly, new shops surrounded 707. The old stores packed up and headed west and south to the counties. Baxani, from India, found that many of his new neighbors were Korean or Vietnamese. Many spoke — and continue to speak — limited English. Their shops catered more and more to low-income residents of nearby housing projects who passed time on East Broad because it was the transfer hub for most of the city's buses.
Five years ago, Realtor and developer Tom Robinson predicted change on this vital stretch of East Broad would come not via city politicians but from business owners.
Robinson says the epiphany for him came during a meeting with city government officials during the aggressive zoning crackdown in the city's nearby First Fridays Art Walk. During that meeting, he says, someone asked Richmond code-enforcement officials why they weren't enforcing those zoning regulations on businesses just to the east that often operate in decrepit buildings with decaying infrastructure — the area where 707 is located.
Robinson says he listened in disbelief as top city officials explained they weren't worried about cracking down on those businesses because they reasoned that as property values around them went up, the businesses would be forced out by increased rents.
"I said, ‘Do you realize these people own their buildings?' " Robinson recalls. "They didn't know. They hadn't even looked at their own tax records to know."
Robinson recognizes the uncomfortable race element to the discussion. But, he says, the choice becomes ignoring reality or having an open and honest dialogue, with the goal being finding a way to work together to improve the community for everyone.
Referring to the development occurring on East Broad, Lee Downey, the city's economic and community development directors, calls it "one of Richmond's best-kept secrets, to be honest." Part of Downey's strategy, he says, is helping the businesses that are already on Broad.
"You've got to understand, you don't just chase people out," Robinson agrees.
Baxani says Robinson's observations are spot on. "I'll be honest with you, there are some stores here that really don't care because they don't have a second generation that are interested in it," Baxani says. "They're just doing it until they retire."
Baxani says the decision to move away from the kind of merchandise his father sold was risky, but he had no interest in marketing clothes he didn't like and wouldn't wear.
"When you do that, it's really scary because customers don't know you even have this stuff," he says
The store already upgraded by branding and launching its own label of custom shirts. A website launch is planned to augment the word-of-mouth business that already has seen 707 earn return business from as far afield as Miami, San Diego, New York and even Hong Kong.
Baxani says he's frequently away on sales calls — a recent trip scored $10,000 in purchases from a single client.
"We're kind of rebranding our whole store," says Chris Dudley, Baxani's marketing director. "I guess it's gone through a couple of iterations, but it's going back full circle to what we started at in 1978."
Baxani says he's hopeful that it won't be long before East Broad Street begins to resemble the place from his childhood.
"The building to the left of us is renovated, and the building to the right, that's the one being renovated," he says, not underestimating his own block's role in whether East Broad rises or falls. "We're like the bridge to the developed west side of Broad and further east."