WELLESLEY FALLS, Mass. The corner of Wembly and Algernon streets in this affluent western suburb of Boston has long been known as a “dead zone” where retail businesses perish at a higher-than-average rate of mortality. “Maybe it’s the lack of parking,” says local real estate broker Matt Hurley, who has placed a deli, a coffee shop and a slot-car track in the 20,000 square foot space, all of which closed within two years. “Or maybe it’s because nobody can afford to pay the local kids enough to work here.”
But there’s a new kid on the block this spring, literally and figuratively: First Native American Head Bank, formerly known as First Indian Head Bank, opened a branch here April 1st, a move that many locals believed at first to be an April Fool’s joke.
“You must be off your rocker,” said Edward “Ned” Furthwangler, a retired accountant when he saw Charlene Sharma setting up a display in the storefront window that looks out on a busy four-way intersection. “Nope,” she replied cheerfully. “We’re here to stay, we’re banking in a new way,” she adds, repeating the slogan from the advertising campaign that seeks to downplay the miniscule differences between providers of financial services in an over-crowded market.
Instead of opening at 9 and closing at 5, as all of its competitors do, First Native American Head will open at 8:59 and close at 5:04, giving consumers a valuable extra five minutes to transact business before the “This teller window is CLOSED” sign pops up on the counter. “It’s the least we can do,” Sharma says, “since we’re hardly paying any interest on deposits.”
The bank surveyed the market and found that consumers like deposit and withdrawal slips that are printed in different colors, to ease the often difficult decision as to which form to use when transacting business. “It’s so confusing,” says Myra Florin, a widow who prefers a low-paying bank savings account to riskier investments because she can “see, touch and feel” her passbook. “If I see a red withdrawal slip, I associate that with ‘being in the red’ and it all makes sense.”
Banks have been criticized for “killing the buzz” of otherwise lively retail areas, but officials here say anything is better than more failure. “Yes banking is boring,” says Town Assessor Martin Cargill, “but having to send out overdue tax notices isn’t much fun either.” Locals with limited understanding of commercial real estate often make suggestions to the town council about what “they” should put in the vacant store, not realizing that a lease represents a consensual arrangement between landlord and tenant, and not a government diktat. “I still say they should bring back the slot car track,” says Todd Malinkrodt, who was held back a year in school because of excessive glue sniffing. “I don’t care if it’s consensual, that never works when I try to rent a motel room with my girlfriend.”
To counter the perception that banks are cold, unfriendly places First Native American Head is offering children’s savings accounts to get youngsters hooked on the thrill of low interest rates when they’re young. “How much did you bring me today?” head teller Veronique Gerson asks Courtney Bullard, who lives just down the street.
“Two dollars and fifty cents,” the tow-headed girl replies with obvious pride as she pushes rolls of coins across the counter and takes a complimentary lollipop from a dish.
“My, what a good little saver you are!” Gerson says as she hands the youngster a receipt.
“I know,” Bullard says, then hesitates a moment before asking “Can I have a second lollipop?”
“Sure,” Gerson says with a smile. “I’ll just debit your account for fifty cents, it’ll show up on your next monthly statement.”