The Antique Row bypass Slump: For many years, Howard Street was the place to go for fine furniture with a history. But business has fallen off, and dealers don't know when or if it will return.

February 15, 1998|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

After taking early retirement from his job as a computer security consultant, Ronald Lauzon set up a small shop last February on Baltimore's famed Antique Row, buying and selling turn-of-the-century paintings.

Ten months later, Lauzon abandoned the century-old haven for fine furniture, art, rare books and other antiques in the 800 block of N. Howard St. He found a new spot for his business -- at an antiques mall in New Oxford, Pa.

"I went nine Saturdays without a sale," said Lauzon, 59, of his brief time on Antique Row, on the northwest edge of the city's downtown business district. "There were weeks from Monday to Friday when four people came in. It gets pretty depressing, believe me."

Lauzon's experience is hardly unique. Longtime dealers say the number of open stores on Antique Row has sunk to an all-time low, with about half the 35 stores vacant, used for storage or for sale.

Some even wonder whether the string of antiques stores -- which in recent decades has survived the disappearance of the city's nearby department stores, increased crime and the disruption from the construction of the light rail line -- may ever be able to reclaim its past glory.

Aside from the obvious signs, shop owners are faced with a new antiques retailing reality: stiffer competition from suburban dealers.

"There are a lot of shops for sale. That's sad. And we don't know what would entice people to come back," said Frank J. Rutkowski Jr., a 32-year-old dealer who owns Connoisseur's Connection. "The city concentrates on the Inner Harbor and Fells Point. We've been an antique center for 100 years, and we're kind of forgotten."

M. J. "Jay" Brodie, head of the city's economic development agency, agreed the city could do more, citing the possibility of business loans to improve the buildings.

"It's a valuable asset, and it would be a shame to lose it," he said.

As long as a "pretty good nucleus" of dealers remains, Antique Row can survive, Brodie said, but: "Life changes, and folks have to change with it. I'd encourage Antique Row to adapt and market itself more aggressively. Retail is the fastest-changing segment of American business."

As it is, the only visible signs of urban vibrancy left on Antique Row are the gaslights and silk banners marking it as Maryland's best place to buy antiques. Bleak is the only word to describe the empty brick sidewalks on a winter afternoon.

The scene is a far cry from what it once was, even as the economy booms and the stock market purrs.

Antique Row began as a 19th-century center of cabinetmaking, evolving from a manufacturing to a commercial area as fine furniture began to be resold and recycled.

It reached its zenith in the 1950s, spurred by its proximity to the city's large department stores a few blocks south. Then, more than 50 dealers were in business on both sides of the street. In the 1960s, shops on the west side were razed for the expansion of Maryland General Hospital.

But the closing of the department stores -- the last one, Hutzler's, closed at the end of 1989 -- contributed to the decline of Antique Row, and the construction of the light rail line in 1989 and the early 1990s accelerated it.

Still, as recently as a decade ago, Antique Row was thriving, said Angela R. Thrasher, who owns Angela R. Thrasher Antiques and Fine Art. "People were clamoring to come here," she saidof fierce competition for storefronts. Thrasher has put her shop up for sale, for personal reasons, she says -- but she believes the row will revive.

Other dealers also remember the 1980s as "rocking and rolling," as Philip S. Dubey, owner of Dubey's Art & Antiques, put it.

James "Jimmie" Judd, whose family-owned continental antiques shop has been a strong presence for 25 years, said, "There will always be an Antique Row, as long as I'm alive, anyway." His 87-year-old mother, Catherine, keeps the books, and his son Jay polishes the brass.

Despite his optimism, Judd said, "I wish we had 20, 30 more dealers on this street," because dealers specializing in one period or country don't compete directly with each other.

A shop closes

Tim Naylor, 34, who has not fared as well and closed his shop last year, said, "Just like Howard Street is no longer where you go to do your Christmas shopping, likewise Howard Street is not where people go antiquing" on Sunday afternoons.

Naylor, owner of Naylor Antiques for five years, said he saw a steady fall in the number of pedestrians that began with the construction of the light rail line. The rent he paid for his shop space was gradually reduced by his landlord, from $1,250 in his first year, 1992, to $650 in 1996.

Naylor said, "In the end, I couldn't do better than break even."

Most disturbing to longtime dealers is that others are not lining up to replace those who leave.

Dealer E. A. Mack pointed to what he took as an ominous harbinger and almost a violation of the street's good name: Naylor's shop is now a hair and nail salon.

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