Morton's closing store in Market Center Manager blames location for losses

December 05, 1996|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

After failing to persuade shoppers to come down to Howard Street, Larry Levin said he is closing Morton's clothing store in Market Center.

"It was a simple decision," Levin, managing partner of the store since 1993, said yesterday. The first year after he took over the store brought a modest profit. The second year, Levin saw a modest loss, but in 1995 "we took a substantial hit," he said. With a lease expiring in February at the 20,000-square-foot store in the former Hutzler's Palace on the corner of Lexington and Howard streets, Levin said he decided to pull the plug.

What it all comes down to, he said, is the location.

"I just couldn't convince people to come downtown," Levin said. "I tried everything." Radio, television, mailings didn't help. Neither did the opening of a large Rite Aid drugstore right across the street or the recent opening of Howard Street to automobile traffic.

"Nothing has improved," he said.

Levin said the failure of the store has a lot to do with shoppers' perceptions about Howard Street. People, he said, believe they may be approached by panhandlers, but in fact there is a large police presence in the area.

He praised the work of the Downtown Partnership, but said "they just haven't hit the right formula" yet to make the Howard Street corridor successful.

"Do we have a long way to go to bring up a strong retail base in Market Center? Yes," said Laurie Schwartz, Downtown Partnership president.

However, she added, dozens of retailers in the area had been successful for decades in that location, including Gage Menswear and Hosiery World.

"Rite Aid had confidence in the market," Schwartz said.

The store is owned jointly by Levin and founder Mortimer Lebowitz. A Washington-based clothing chain, Morton's had six locations in the District of Columbia and the Howard Street location, which was opened in September 1990. In 1993, Lebowitz, then 81, decided to close the Washington stores. An executive he had groomed to take over the stores for him died, Levin said, and Lebowitz decided to give it up.

But Levin, who had shopped and gone to the movies on Howard Street as a teen-ager and had always dreamed of owning a store, took over management of the Howard Street store. With its closing, 16 full-time and 10 part-time employees will be laid off.

Pub Date: 12/05/96

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