You’ve seen this picture before, in late December, a couple weeks after I’d posted reflective pictures taken inside Cool Jewels on Main Street here in Keene. Several days ago, when Keene was crawling with odd photographers, I mentioned seeing a newspaper photographer taking a picture of this same awning, another angle upon which you can see here. Reggie and I literally stepped around that photographer; in fact, I almost snapped an image of him doing his job, but I stopped when I recognized him as Sentinel staffer Michael Moore (no, not that Michael Moore), a photographer who had taken my picture last September. Even a digicam-wielding place-blogger has scruples, and I’ve no desire to peeve the local press. We might cover the same beat, the Mainstream Media and I, but we each have our own approach and perspective, and I respect that.

Moore’s photo of Cool Jewels’ colorful facade appeared above the frontpage fold of yesterday’s Sentinel along with an article by Peter J. Cleary, who I assume was the person I saw standing with open notebook alongside Moore as Reggie and I skirted the scene. (I’d link to the article in question, but the Sentinel‘s online archives are available to subscribers only.) It seems there’s some debate over whether Cool Jewels’ funky facade fits the historic ambience of downtown Keene, a question of particular importance now that newly erected signs mark the boundaries of her historic district.

Although these new signs are both eye-catching and lovely, Keene doesn’t need signs proclaiming the beauty of her downtown, a fact that is apparent to anyone walking Main Street (or anyone spending any time browsing Hoarded Ordinaries, for that matter). As I’ve blogged before, none other than Henry David Thoreau remarked on the beauty of Keene’s Main Street when he passed through on an 1850 trip to Canada. Part of what gives downtown Keene her particular charm–part of what keeps visitors coming back to town and readers returning to Hoarded Ordinaries–is the fact that downtown shops and businesses have for the most part preserved the brick and mortar integrity of Keene’s vintage buildings.

But. Right across Main Street from Cool Jewel’s eye-popping purple, orange, and turquoise storefront stands Margarita’s Mexican Restaurant, whose equally colorful facade graces the childhood home of Thoreau’s mother, Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau. In the several years I’ve lived in Keene, I’ve never heard anyone complain about the decidedly non-Thoreauvian color scheme of Thoreau’s mother’s house…but I’ll assume Margarita’s decor probably raised an eyebrow or two (to borrow the imagery of yesterday’s Sentinel headline) in the restaurant’s early days.

For good or ill, Thoreau’s mother’s house isn’t a museum, and neither are the other buildings in Keene’s so-called historic district. If Cool Jewels stood in rainbow glory right next to Keene’s crown jewel, the pristinely white Congregational church at the head of Central Square, I could understand the hoopla. But Cool Jewels has a Chinese restaurant on one side and Armadillos Burritos on the other. Even in the heart of Keene’s historic district, there is a strip of ethnic eateries and more than one funky boutique that already belie the 19th century aura of the place. I fail to see how a flashy (and to my eye, attractive) paint job is going to irrevocably damage the aesthetics of downtown.

Neither Thoreau nor his mother would know what to make of our “historic district” if they could walk Keene’s Main Street today. Not only would Thoreau and his mother be mystified by the abundance of automobiles, cell phones, and other newfangled gadgets, neither one of them would have ever seen much less patronized a Chinese or Mexican restaurant. I’d like to think that Mrs. Thoreau would have oohed and ahhed over Cool Jewels’ colorful inventory of Mexican, Balinese, and Indonesian wares, but the 19th century that Thoreau and his mother grew up in (and which Keene’s historic district presumably celebrates) was sadly not the most enlightened of times. Although Thoreau decried the Mexican War because it wrested land from indigenous people, his published remarks about Irish immigrants in Concord, MA show that he wasn’t immune to his culture’s prejudices: a product of his time. The face of America is much more diverse than it was in Thoreau’s or Thoreau’s mother’s day, so I don’t see why downtown facades shouldn’t reflect the various hues of Keene’s local color. As much as I love the sight of bare weathered brick against blue sky, I am equally cheered by the flurry of color that all of our downtown businesses lend to grateful eyes.