Urban entrepreneurs bet the store on a revival of traditional retailing area

A NICHE ON CHARLES STREET

December 08, 1991|By Timothy J. Mullaney

One by one, downtown stores have closed, gone bankrupt or left for the suburbs. Reamer's, the men's store on Charles Street that closed in April. W. Bell, the branch of the catalog retailer. Oscar Scherr, the jewelry store that left Calvert Street for Pikesville. Eddie Jacobs, the Light Street clothier that recently filed for bankruptcy.

Conclusions are simple. The word in the neighborhood today is "blight." Right?

Well, actually, no.

In the face of a recession and budget cuts that have deeply shaken confidence in the city's ability to sustain economic growth, people like Penny Diamanti are quietly picking Charles Street up, dusting it off, and putting it back to work.

Ms. Diamanti, part-owner of a store called Beadazzled that sells beads in a renovated building at Franklin Street, is among the entrepreneurs who are opening or expanding stores along Charles Street, the city's traditional home of niche-oriented retailers. In July, she admits, the number of empty storefronts scared her. Two months after opening, she finds downtown Baltimore "beadazzling."

"I think it's fantastic," said Ms. Diamanti, whose partner is husband Erik de Widt. "We're doing land-office business, as well as our Dupont Circle store" in Washington, which has been open for two years.

Others are betting on Charles Street, too. The W. Bell store is gone, but its space has been leased to Tres Bon, a bakery cafe chain. The Reamer's space has been leased temporarily, and a major chain is said to be close to signing a permanent lease. A record store replaced Kinko's, the print shop that moved to bigger quarters vacated by a savings and loan. Femme, a hip women's clothing store, moved to a bigger store this week. Sassy Sentiments, a card shop, also moved to a bigger store this fall.

And down the block, Ginny Tomlinson of Tomlinson Craft Collection recently had the ultimate urban merchant's pleasure. Courted by officials of the new Towson Town Center mall, which is 22 percent unleased, to open a store at least for the holiday season, she said no.

"It's not our greatest year," Mrs. Tomlinson admits. "We're having a recession; it affects everyone, not just Charles Street. . . . But there are a lot of people like my children. I used to think they were queer, but they don't like malls."

"Charles Street is holding up quite well," said Bill Struever, one of Femme's landlords. "There have been vacancies for a long time, but they move around. If you counted them up, there are probably more good stores on Charles Street than two, four, five years ago."

No one is saying that Charles Street is the perfect place for every retail store. Mrs. Tomlinson, for instance, concedes that her store at the Rotunda shopping center in Roland Park does more business. Suburban malls have much more foot traffic than Charles Street shops. And downtown has failed to support most large stores, as witnessed by the swift demise of a new Hutzler's store and a remodeled Hecht's two blocks to the west on Howard Street during the 1980s.

Still, the small entrepreneurs say they have found ways to adapt.

"What makes neighborhoods work is small, unusual businesses that have something to offer," Ms. Diamanti said. "Customers are not going to drive downtown to Hecht's, because [Hecht's] is [also] in the suburbs. But if there's something they can't get in the suburbs, they'll come downtown for it."

Part of the trick is matching your merchandise to the neighborhood. Ms. Diamanti, for example, wanted to be near the city's galleries, the Walters Museum and the artsy Mount Vernon neighborhood.

Another part of the trick is to sell merchandise that's worth a trip. "We definitely have a niche here," said Laurie Salladin, manager of Femme. "We offer things no one else does."

And always, always, always, the merchants talk service, service, service. With a downtown location, they feel they have to.

"I grew up in New York City," said Susan Lauffer, president of Baskets of Taste, a gift shop in the 300 block of North Charles Street that specializes in baskets of foods, soaps or similar goods. "I went to Bloomingdale's, got yelled at, and that's what retail was to me."

Today, Ms. Lauffer has taken her store to the customers. A corporate salesperson makes the rounds of nearby office towers to convince executives that a basket is a better client gift than a bottle.

And while Femme doesn't have regular evening hours, it offers after-hours shopping by appointment to defuse objections that shopping downtown is inconvenient.

The twin themes of unusual merchandise and diligent service can help small downtown shops escape the fate of department stores, which died when customers moved to the suburbs and women went to work en masse.

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