Moms & Kids Find Sanctuary in the Pru
New children's stores in the mall draw parents with kids to the Shops at Prudential Center, a place that relieves the dearth of community spaces in the Back Bay.
Stay in your lane, pass on the left, and neither exceed nor fall under the speed limit: These are the unspoken traffic rules at Boston’s Prudential Center mall. Crowded with office workers, tourists, and locals, the busy hall off Boylston Street reminds you that you are still in the city.
But pass the north-side main drag, and the aisles widen while the lovely skylight ceilings persist. Ahhh, space. It’s here that young families are making the mall their own. A landscaped garden, places indoors to linger, and now a family-oriented trio of businesses are all holding down the age of the average Pru visitor.
With most residents in our urban neighborhoods tucked into condos without yards, we covet any living space beyond our own homes. The mall managers are too diplomatic to say whether they intended it or not, but the Pru has become a needed urban family destination in Boston.
Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Ave. are considered the anchors for the Shops at Prudential Center, yet the two department stores predate the beautiful present-day mall. More than two decades ago, the old shopping arcades here were at once open-air and dreary.
Today, families with the littlest ones know that their real anchor is Isis Parenting. Since the fall of 2008, Isis has offered classes and products here for parents and small children. Their next-door neighbor is Bellini, a children’s furniture shop franchise that opened in spring 2011. Magic Beans toy store debuted in November. “We’ve wanted a store in [this] location for a long time,” says Sheri Gurock, who with her husband, Eli, founded the service-oriented chain.
For many beginner parents, it starts with an Isis prenatal class. The store keeps longer hours than most of the mall – nine to nine for six days of the week – offering everything from new-dad groups to an hour-long session for little siblings-to-be. The merchandise includes clothing for nursing moms and baby gear and toddler toys; tailored for the youngest children and newer families. Amanda Rush, the manager, has apologized to many a visitor for not being able to suggest options for older children. Now, she’s happy to be able to point those shoppers in the direction of Magic Beans.
Just in front of Isis, “the Belvidere Pavilion seating area is a quiet dining space away from the hustle and bustle of the food court,” says Pru marketing manager Rebecca Stoddard in an e-mail. Its openness seems to reflect the mall’s commitment to more than just income-generating shopping options. Café tables in the relaxing sunroom overlook more seating outdoors for warm days. Stroller access being important everywhere, there’s plenty of room to maneuver. Moms and babies are part of the brown-bagger mix, and it’s an easy place to linger. Mobile kids may find it difficult not to run down the long, angled corridors in this low-key part of the mall.
Outside, the “South Garden” has the lushest expanse of grass in the city. It’s not a playground, but the fountains are an irresistible draw for kids. Instead of jungle gyms and slides, the carpet of green invites children to roll down its gentle slopes.
The adjacent corridor that stretches from Huntington Ave. to Boylston St. bridges the Back Bay and South End, but the Pru is also a draw for families outside of those two neighborhoods. The mall is “on my recommended list,” says Joy Earle, the mother of a seven-month-old. Her recently launched blog, NetworkforMoms.org, includes a selection of places to have baby play dates. Ms. Earle drives into Boston for her Isis class from Brookline, while her friend, Nikki Dalrymple, lives in Charlestown. The closing of the original Isis in Brookline, after the elimination of all the retail shops in that center, means that customers now choose either the Boston or Needham branches. “We really opened here because clients were asking us to do so for a long time,” says Ms. Rush.
Meanwhile, Magic Beans sales supervisor Theo Roussi knows former customers of the Brookline store are enjoying the walk to the Pru instead of the drive to Coolidge Corner. At the smallest of the five Magic Beans stores, Ms. Gurock says they are tweaking the selection to cater to the higher proportion of tourists and urban families. Marketing manager Ms. Stoddard says there are no vacancies in the mall that her company has to lease – the empty space right next to Magic Beans is the property of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Gurock may speak for a lot of parents when she says, “We'd love to see maybe a great children's clothing store, or a kid-friendly restaurant or cafe” there. Mr. Roussi points out that a maintenance hallway in between Magic Beans and the empty store would prevent them from operating one large, contiguous space.
Even in the tighter space, Roussi is thinking about how he could accommodate story time in the Pru store. It’s the only Magic Beans that doesn’t have its own play area for such activities. He has some tiny chairs just itching to be brought up from storage, and envisions a rearrangement of some displays. In the best city-adaptable tradition, “We’ll make some room!” he says.