Miller Brothers Back In Town

February 08, 1994|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Sun Staff Writer

Paddling against the tide that has swept retailers to the suburban malls, Miller Brothers, a longtime Baltimore retail fixture, has returned to its old haunts on Charles Street after abandoning its Towson Town Center shop of 35 years.

"We are here because the access to our customers is better," said Michael Miller, president of the family-owned business.

But the company also left Towson because of a dispute with its landlord, Towson Town Center Associates -- a matter neither side would discuss yesterday.

"Our family owns the building [on Charles Street] and it's a place we could come no matter what," Mr. Miller said.

While he said there are no plans to move from Charles Street again, he left the door open for future changes. "I have to do one thing at a time," Mr. Miller said.

The reopening of the store on Feb. 2 was greated enthusiastically by the Downtown Partnership, a quasi-public agency that is fighting to reverse the decline of the city's old shopping district.

"It's a signal that retail works downtown," said Laurie Schwartz, president of the Downtown Partnership. "We hope it's a sign of a new trend of retail businesses moving from Towson to downtown Baltimore."

Miller Brothers, which has supplied countless gowns and furs for cotillions and cocktail parties since it was founded in 1898, closed its Charles Street store in June 1992, complaining that parking had become too scarce for its patrons. It consolidated its operations at its existing Towson Town Center shop but maintained corporate offices at Charles Street.

With the closing, the store took away more of the glitter from the already heavily tarnished image of Charles Street, which was once seen as the Fifth Avenue of Baltimore's retail industry.

But while a return to its glory days may not be imminent, the parking problems that drove Miller Brothers away have been alleviated. "That was something that needed to be overcome, and it has been," Mr. Miller said.

The parking lot at the new Mercantile Bank & Trust branch at the corner of Charles and Chase streets, which was under construction when Miller Brothers left, has opened up new parking spaces for customers, Mr. Miller said.

And there is metered parking on both sides of Charles Street until 5 p.m., instead of the previous one-sided parking that ended daily at 4 p.m. "It's very accessible," Mr. Miller said about the new parking arrangement. He even has an answer for customers short of change. "I give them the quarters to put into the meters," he said.

While Mr. Miller did not criticize Towson Town Center's parking facilities, he alluded to widespread dissatisfaction.

There also are other problems between Miller Brothers and Towson Town, which might erupt into a law suit. Chris S. Schardt, general manager for the center, declined to comment on Miller Brothers' leaving, citing company policy not to discuss matters that may go to court.

The closing of the 5,000-square-foot Towson store on Jan. 29 ended a 35-year-old operation dating back to the beginning of Towson Plaza, the strip center that predated the enclosed mall. It was the company's first branch store, Mr. Miller said.

Now left with only its Charles Street store, Miller Brothers will try to bring in customers with an emphasis on service and an expanded cocktail dress collection, Mr. Miller said. Judging from the first Saturday at his reopened store, the prospects are good, he said. "It was just as busy as any day I had in the mall."

Helped by cold weather and an improving economy, Mr. Miller said the company's fur business last year, which accounted for 40 percent of the sales, was "one of the absolute best years."

But he was less enthusiastic about the rest of the business, saying it was dependent on fickle fashion trends.

Asked if the company was profitable, he replied: "That's a hard questions to answer. . . . Profitability is how well you serve your customers."

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