Small shop, big dream Retailers: Like the nearly 1 million other merchants nationwide, Judith Taylor Orlinsky endures daily struggles to fulfill a unique vision.

August 25, 1996|By Alec Matthew Klein | Alec Matthew Klein,SUN STAFF

The day begins to unfold at 8: 22 a.m. with the lazy hum of engines warming, the sun awakening behind a stitch of clouds. Along the waterfront in Fells Point, a shopkeeper cuts a solitary figure, perched on a step ladder, dressing the front door of her Japanese crafts boutique with Noren, a traditional curtain emblazoned with a black and red crane, symbol of what all businesses hope for -- long life and happiness.

An invocation to the gods sits embodied on a back shelf in the store: a Daruma, a papier-mache visage of a fierce monk with gold-enameled whiskers, a red dhoti Indian robe and one eye painted black. As is custom, the other eye will be filled in when the proprietor's wish comes true -- when she makes a profit.

Such are the rituals of Judith Taylor Orlinsky, a 55-year-old small retailer claiming a little storefront on a historic landing in Baltimore. She could be any one of nearly 1 million merchants nationwide, one of 28,000 in Maryland, experiencing the daily grind of unforeseen blunders and slight victories.

Yet in her struggles, Orlinsky's pursuit strikes at the heart of the spirit driving thousands of other small retailers -- ownership, individualism, competition and something personal.

These are their motives; this is why they risk almost everything.

"I gave up a $58,000-a-year job. It takes a little insanity -- or a lot of insanity," she said. "It's all on the line, there's no question about it. This has to work, or I'll have to get a job."

The fear of failure is real. In her first year, she lost $120,000. In her second, $110,000. Now, on her three-year anniversary in business this month, Orlinsky is still $145,000 from breaking even. And she stands at a critical threshold: Nearly one out of three retailers nationwide collapses within 36 months. Almost half never get beyond five years.

"And the smaller the retailer, the riskier the business," said Joseph W. Duncan, chief economist of Dun & Bradstreet Corp.

Now more than ever, Main Street merchants are imperiled in the inexorable evolution of retailing. Bigger has become better in an age of mass merchandisers.

Seizing the day are mammoth companies, gobbling up market share like a retail version of Pac Man: In 1958, 65 percent of all retail jobs were held by establishments with fewer than 100 employees; now, 44.3 percent of all retail jobs are found in those stores, according to the 1995 White House Conference on Small Business.

And fueling the trend is the decline of the smallest retailers, those with fewer than 10 employees. Stores like Orlinsky's.

Hers is a diminishing way of life, quaint in its minutiae. At 9: 19 a.m., the shopkeeper, an intense woman with alert blue eyes behind big tinted tortoise shell bifocals, counts out her cash register, a mound of pennies in her palm.

Then she clicks on rice paper lanterns. Moments later, she hauls out a 4-foot-by-6-foot sign, resting it against the store's facade: "JAPONAJI," it declares, a name pulled from a dictionary, derived from the root "aji," Japanese for "flavor."

The shop itself derives from more personal roots, snapshots in time that made a merchant of a mother of two, stepmother of two and grandmother of three.

Spring 1988: Orlinsky woke crying, unable to face another day as a lobbyist for the University of Maryland.

Winter 1992: Her grandson, Andrew, was born, but she couldn't be with him, harangued as she was in budget hearings in Annapolis as a lobbyist for the state Department of Human Resources.

Summer 1992: Relaxing in a wicker chair, sipping a Margarita at a bucolic Delaware resort, Orlinsky reflected on her career and mused to her old friend, Joan Burns, a fellow lobbyist: "There is more to life than this."

It was a common refrain. They always talked about opening a business, "J&J Catering" -- Judy and Joan -- or a movie theater that showed only Bette Davis flicks. But that was chatter. This was different.

The idea crystallized in a single moment that summer when Orlinsky took her 25-year-old step-daughter, Judith, to Japanesque, her favorite shop in Bethany Beach, Del., and blurted out: "We should open a store like this."

And so they did in August 1993, mother and step-daughter, investing virtually everything they had, $200,000 in start-up costs.

"It seemed insane," said her husband, former Baltimore City Council President Walter S. Orlinsky. "I'm not sure I ever believed they'd do it. But everybody in America wants to own something."

The idea inspires small retailers everywhere: the potential for profit and the need to carve out one's own path, not unlike the nation's forefathers who landed at Plymouth Rock, investing in an unknown venture.

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