Charles Street merchants struggle against the lure of huge suburban malls

December 21, 1990|By Cindy Harper-Evans

Shoppers wander through the Nouveau Contemporary Goods store in the 500 block of North Charles Street, perusing the art deco teapots, tables made from Gothic columns and ceramic Marilyn Monroe and James Dean coffee mugs.

"I'm looking for something unique to give as a Christmas present," murmurs one shopper to his companion, who trails closely behind him marveling at the $249 cat rocking chair made for toddlers. "And I've come to the right place."

Christmastime on Mount Vernon's Charles Street corridor is not the glitzy fanfare of suburban malls or Harborplace. There are few Christmas trees and lights inside stores, little tinsel, very little hype and almost no markdowns.

But storekeepers say the shoppers who come to the area are on a mission that seems to make the absence of holiday promotions inconsequential -- finding something near one of a kind, which cookie-cutter mall stores often can't provide.

"If you want something unique, this is the street," says Nouveau co-owner Lee Whitehead.

In a four-block stretch are artsy stores with varying prices such as Tomlinson Crafts, Louie's Book Store Cafe, The Zone -- a vintage clothing store -- and an array of art galleries.

Cartuche carries original local art, antiques and accessories in its deep-purple store interior. Watercolor and collage works by Andrea Huppert and sculptures by Sallie Scruggs are in high demand by local collectors, says Cartuche owner Marc Horowitz.

Despite their obvious flair, these Mount Vernon merchants are still feeling the pinch brought about by economic uncertainty and the crisis in the Middle East. And what makes it worse for them, they say, is that it's impossible for them to make steep markdowns the way larger retailers do to coax customers in the door.

"Christmas starts right after Halloween now for bigger stores, and that is very disturbing to me," says Norman Thomas, owner of The Artisans, just off Charles Street at Hamilton Street.

Mr. Thomas buys selected fine china from importers in New York and crystal beads from Austria and Vienna to sell in his small store, which was a stable in the 1800s.

He says the markup on his merchandise is small and that he therefore can't offer huge discounts.

Another problem Charles Street retailers say they face is a scarcity of parking places and shoppers' desire to find all of their Christmas presents under one roof.

"The past couple of weekends have been pretty soft. Perhaps people are going to the malls to get their heavy-duty shopping done," says Larry Belt, owner of Saeno.

Mr. Belt says Saeno, which carries high-priced, high-fashion men's clothes, can't afford to do much in the way of markdowns. But the store recently donated 5 percent of the money customers spent to charities of their choice, which Mr. Belt says resulted in a lot of sales.

"There are good things about shopping downtown," says Donna Jenkins, owner of the Zone. "You don't encounter the mobs of malls. You work to earn your money. Why fight to spend it?"

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