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Loose Ends 12/21: Retail environment during the holiday season

The Christmas/Hanukkah shopping season inspired me to reach out to David Newton, who managed Palmer Square for more than two decades, to get his take on the retail environment and development opportunities in Princeton.  He presented me with his words of wisdom – plus an extra gift that proved even more enlightening than what I originally sought. I discovered the relationship between David and Fellowship In Prayer, a charitable non-profit organization with which I was unfamiliar, but whose message certainly fits the season in an antithetical way from shopping.

Most Princetonians know longtime Princeton resident David in his professional role as an investor, leasing agent and manager of commercial and residential real estate, particularly as an investor in the historic Lower Pyne building on the corner of Witherspoon and Nassau Streets and as the former manager of Palmer Square. Regarding the retail health of downtown Princeton, David said that times now are “challenging.”

“Most of the time after a recession, there is pent up retail demand that stimulates post-recession retail activity among existing retailers and attracts new retailers,” Newton said. “After the recent recession, however, the pent-up demand has been absent. I believe this is directly due to the Internet shopping phenomena.“

In spite of the fact that Princeton retailing has “taken a couple whacks,” David is bullish on the future of retailing in town and the value of experiential shopping.

“Shopping is a social activity especially in a place like Princeton. At the mall and big box stores, there is a plateau for discounting that makes continuous discounting unsustainable. And no matter how convenient online shopping is, there is nothing quite as satisfying as the socialization gotten from walking into a local store in a beautiful setting like Princeton and talking to the store clerk and fellow shoppers and interacting directly with the merchandise….It is an event, not just a purchase,” he said.

Since he left the Palmer Square management job in 2016, David has been engrossed in real estate projects in Trenton and in Jersey City, specifically a mixed use redevelopment of a “lovely looking two story building on Warren Street in Trenton right next to the new Starbucks on Warren and Front Streets, and a large, multi-story apartment building on Journal Square in Jersey City.” 

When he was working in Palmer Square, however, people often saw David as he walked around Palmer Square and engaged in that bricks-and-mortar-store quality – socialization. He schmoozed with storeowners, employees and customers and in the process learned about the business “issues” first hand.

Thanks to David’s visibility in the downtown, Princetonians learned about an aspect of David’s character that had nothing directly to do with managing the property. David is a “modern,” practicing orthodox Jew, who always wears his yarmulke. His spirituality led to his commitment to the Fellowship In Prayer, headquartered in a residential-styled building on Witherspoon Street, one block from my apartment and across the street from the former Princeton Packet headquarters.  Before David’s retirement from his Palmer Square management job, I would see David and the Fellowship In Prayer building on a regular basis, but had no idea the two were connected.

David has been a board member of Fellowship In Prayer since 2009 and the president of the organization since 2012. The mission of the charitable non-profit is to “encourage and support a spiritual orientation to life, to promote the practice of prayer, meditation and service to others, and help bring about a deeper spirit of unity among humankind.  On the website of the organization, a small write up about David explains how he connects with the organization. 

“David fully admits that he struggles with separating prayer from its religious affiliations. He recognizes that prayer is an inalienable right belonging to everyone, and he finds religious-related prayer more than often fails to resonate with any one beyond the adherents of the religion from where the prayer originates.  Yet, he is not looking for sameness in prayer, rather he wants our religious and cultural diversity to be united through acts of peacemaking and kindness which is the foundation stone to us eventually learning how to pray and meditate as ‘one.’”

Fellowship in Prayer Witherspoon was founded in 1949, basically as a vehicle to promote prayer as an answer to nuclear proliferation, and in 1950s and 1960s the organization thrived.  As the nuclear fear subsided, the organization became less relevant to the general public. It reinvented itself as a small publication society, moved from New York City to Princeton, and won critical acclaim for its signature publication called “Sacred Journey.”

In 2013, the board, which comprises individuals of all faiths, professions, ages and socio-economic back grounds, decided to end the publication and to use the organization’s resources for the time being to give grants to support interfaith, pubic-service initiatives, such as the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, a national network of Muslim and Jewish women who combat hate and prejudice by building relationships and taking action for peace.

“Social media produces a lot of anger; misdirected anger is society’s enemy…. Religions can be a positive force by focusing less on the theological differences and take it down a notch and talk about their commonality – service and improving the quality of people’s lives,” said David.

Whether through sponsoring peacemaking activities or helping to promote prayer and meditative practices or becoming involved in community-based acts of kindness, Fellowship In Prayer, said David, keeps him focused on the positive in the world around him.

I say ‘Amen’ to that.

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