Street vendors sell cheap frills and passing fancies -- jangly earrings, cassette tapes and cool-today, nerdy-tomorrow sunglasses that you can pick up for a few dollars on the spur of the lunchtime moment.
But now, the price of selling cheap is going up.
Vendors in downtown Baltimore have until September to meet new design standards that the city hopes will rid the sidewalks of some of the more ragtag-looking operations. Under the new standards, merchandise vendors will have to sell from carts topped with awnings -- preferably in the city colors of black and gold -- rather than the makeshift tables that some currently use. The city estimates such carts can cost as much as $1,000.
The new standards -- which apply only to vendors of merchandise, not food -- are just the latest to tighten up on this once rather freewheeling form of retail.
"When I first got into it, there were no regulations. You just set up anywhere you wanted. There must have been a hundred vendors then," said John Anderson, a 27-year veteran of street sales. "People think it's really cheap to do this. But now you have to pay for licenses and these new awnings. It pretty hard to get started now."
Seen as a success story by some of the other vendors, Mr. Anderson's street sales eventually generated enough money for him to open up two indoor stores, on Greene Street and on Eutaw Street. Yet, Mr. Anderson, who operates both merchandise and hot dog stands, doesn't think he'll ever come in completely from the cold -- or the heat or the rain.
"None of the stores downtown are doing well. The people at Harborplace, the people in the hotels don't come up this way," he said, standing outside his store at 9 N. Eutaw. "At one point, I think they were telling those people, 'Don't go north of Baltimore Street.' "
Instead, his customers are Lexington Market shoppers and workers at nearby University Hospital and the state's Human Resources Department. The continual dismantling of Howard Street -- the latest reason is the construction of the light-rail -- has destroyed what used to be the "focal point" of downtown shopping and left him with fewer customers, Mr. Anderson said.
To make up for lost shoppers, he seeks out new markets, taking his wares to various festivals like the City Fair and setting up shop outside some of the big downtown conventions.
Like other vendors -- the city has licensed about 35 food vendors and 27 merchandise vendors -- Mr. Anderson knows the downsides of his chosen work. Among them are long hours (you have to set up early enough to catch people on their way to work), Baltimore's often wicked weather and the antipathy of indoor businesses that see the al fresco salesmen as either competition or nuisances. But for these vendors, there's the glory of getting in on the ground floor of self-employment.
"I've worked for General Motors, Bethlehem Steel, and I've driven cabs. It's just survival," said Tyrone Morrow, who with a partner sells cassettes, clothes and what he calls "some little whatnots" from a table on St. Paul Street between Pleasant and Saratoga. "We're just trying to make an honest living out here."
Mr. Morrow objects to the new design regulations requiring LLTC cart, saying he doesn't know where he'd park it overnight. Currently, he and his partner simply load everything -- their merchandise and table -- into a van after the day is done. Although the carts can be made collapsible, Mr. Morrow said he doesn't think he'd be able to fit one in the van.
"This is our lifestyle. They shouldn't come up with rules to cramp our lifestyle," he said. "We're not rich. It's not like we're a great big department store."
City representatives said their motivation is aesthetics.
"We hope to see the disappearance of tables and raggedy stands," said Ottavio Grande, a member of the board that licenses street vendors. "The ultimate goal is to have something visually pleasing, nice and clean, and something that they can still display their products from."
While street vendors have been around seemingly forever, it's only been since 1974 that the city first started regulating them. That year, the city created the Board of Licenses for Hucksters, Hawkers and Peddlers. This three-member board determines who can sell what and where on downtown sidewalks. Applicants pay a non-refundable $25 application fee, then, if approved, an initial license fee of $375 for food vendors or $75 for merchandise vendors. The license has to be renewed annually.
The board won't accept applications for certain areas, such as Howard Street, the Lexington Street Mall and any location south of Lombard Street. It also tries to keep vendors away from areas of heavy pedestrian traffic, narrow sidewalks and places where other vendors are already licensed to sell.
The board's new design regulations have met with some resistance, but several vendors say they have no choice but to comply if they want to stay in business.