Pushcarts have come a long way since the days of popcorn and costume jewelry.
On the ground floor of The Mall in Columbia, holiday shoppers can find one-of-a-kind designer mohair coats, a crystal castle set in smoky quartz and 5-foot soft-sculpture palm trees, all of them priced over $100.
This year the carts are expanding their offerings. The mall has removed four kiosks and nearly doubled its number of carts for the holiday rush.
Among the 21 businesses that have set up shop at a cart is Historical Research Center Inc., a Florida-based firm that uses computers to look up the origin, meaning and first-known historical reference of customers' European surnames. The company will produce the information hand-inscribed with the family coat of arms in a frame.
Thanks in large part to the Rouse Co. cart program, Historical Research has grown from a novelty service that did most of its business at recreational vehicle and home shows to a network with 50 carts and kiosks nationwide, said Brian Dempsey, the company's marketing director.
The Rouse Co.'s pushcart program started in 1984 with high-quality pottery, hand-carved wooden chess sets, stained glass art and other "strictly upscale crafts," said Marcelle Tennenbaum, a Columbia resident who ran the mall's first cart program.
But unlike those early days, most of the wooden carts at the mall today have electronic cash registers and one sports a cellular telephone.
Low-priced trinkets such as key chains and tree ornaments are available at some carts, but such products are becoming more the exception than the rule.
At VIMAC Stained Glass, $9 stained-glass window hangings are displayed along with $120 stained-glass sailboat sculptures. And while the Cat's Meow has dozens of cat-related trinkets in the $3 range, beneath them is a colorful wooden "cat bench" with umbrella priced at $1,000.
Before making room for the carts at the mall, the Rouse Co. had limited cart sales to their urban centers such as Harborplace in Baltimore and the center where they were first featured in 1976, Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston, said company spokeswoman Kate Delano.
"They came about because of the Hay Market (retail district) in Boston," she explains, after Rouse Co. executives "thought if they could sell fruits and vegetables off those carts, then maybe they could sell arts and crafts off of them, too." Rouse now leases carts at nearly all of its 79 malls.
The wagon-wheeled carts are doing so well, boasting a 25 percent increase in sales receipts over two years ago, that Martha Kaplan, who runs the Columbia program, said she expects record sales this season despite poor economic conditions.
And she didn't have to look far for the vendors to stock the carts.
Kaplan says she receives about 80 inquiries a month about cart sales.
About 2 percent of those are seriously considered. Beyond that, she visits craft shows and other malls to find high-quality vendors, 10 of whom are on a waiting list, Kaplan says.
That interest could be explained by the carts' profit potential, which Nosey Little People craftsman Ray Dietrich says can run between $10 and $15,000 for a seven-week Christmas season, which is about twice as profitable as the off-season.
Dietrich and his wife, Naomi, of Seven Valleys, Pa., sell nylon-stocking soft sculpture faces popping out of coffee mugs with custom acrylic lettering.
"Conceivably if you did a couple of Christmas malls, you could make enough to get you through the year, depending on your lifestyle," Dietrich says, but he and his wife work year-round, working out of carts in malls on Long Island and northern New Jersey.
Nearby, Pat Duane of Silver Spring sells an assortment of crab-related merchandise, including husband Al's blockbuster invention that gave the Chesapeake Crab Kit Co. its name.
The paper towel and crab mallet holder transformed the Duane's craft-show hobby into a wholesale business that has shipped out about 10,000 of the kits in the last four years, Mrs. Duane says.
She and her husband make about a third of their merchandise by hand.
They also are operating a cart at Annapolis Mall this season.
June Critchfield, who designs scarves with antique Heinz fruits and vegetable labels, said she made $2,300 worth of sales during her first test week at the mall.
Although she already is successful selling her scarves wholesale to department stores, Critchfield says she enjoys dealing directly with customers, partly because she gets money up front and partly because of the feedback.
"Comments from the customers are fantastic, we've found that everybody loves them and were fascinated with what we're doing," says Critchfield, who is moving to Columbia from Pittsburgh.
In addition to providing low-overhead homes for craft and novelty vendors, the program also serves as an incubator for budding entrepreneurs like Cookie Kornstein, a former Columbia nursery school teacher who owns "I Love Theatre," a cart specializing in arts-related gift items.
Since the cart's debut in February, it has become one of the more popular carts in the mall, Kaplan says.
Buying from a network of about 80 vendors from California to Connecticut, Kornstein sells products ranging from neon-lighted pictures of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe to piano-shaped telephones.
The mall charges vendors $200 a week, plus 10 percent of gross receipts over $1,200, during non-holiday periods. Rents during different holidays vary from $250 to more than $1,000 a week. The Christmas season is the most expensive, this year costing $7,500 for a seven-week stint.
In 1991, the policy of alternating vendors three weeks in, two weeks out will be loosened to allow for monthly leasing, while non-holiday rents will increase by about $30 a week, Kaplan says.