On this weekend when the procrastinators storm the malls, desperate to find presents by Monday, Dan Selke has a suggestion: How about hubcaps?
Selke is the owner of Hubcap City, a fixture for more than 15 years on U.S. 1 in Howard County, the 10-mile stretch that is the focus of a major county revitalization effort. His business has suffered since county officials forced him to tone down his storefront display this year, but sales are up the past few weeks. Believe it or not, he said, some people buy hubcaps for Christmas.
"It's been real good this week. A lot of people get hubcaps for their friends, co-workers. It's one of the few things you can get someone new or used," Selke said. "Mag wheels - now that's more of an investment, so it's mainly something people get for their immediate family. Parents buy them for their kids, or it's a husband-and-wife type of thing."
Listening to Selke and his fellow shop owners on U.S. 1, it's hard to believe that they are but a brief drive from two of the state's largest shopping complexes, The Mall in Columbia and the newly opened Arundel Mills. In the no man's land between the two malls, the U.S. 1 corridor offers a shopping experience foreign to their gleaming concourses, yet one that manages to attract enough consumers to get by.
A holiday tour down the boulevard from Elkridge to Laurel reveals a relic of the state's past, a rusty sleigh whooshing into the present, with little agreement among those aboard about how fast to go. One thing's for sure: No matter how many office parks move into the corridor, its veterans say, it will remain a place apart, a somewhat ragged relief from the retail monoliths to the east and west.
"There's very little competition with [the malls], because not many sell things like we do here," said Marvin Hurst, owner of Hurst Antiques, which has been perched on a rise between Laurel and Savage for 40 years. "We have a diversified stock."
Hurst offers, among other things, a bust of Louis Armstrong, a pipe clenched in his grinning mouth; several large wooden reliefs of Spanish conquistadors, decorations taken from a closed restaurant; several red Radio Flyer wagons; a loom; and his latest acquisition, a hand-blown glass carafe gilded with gold leaf and glass flowers, with matching glasses.
Business has been fairly good this holiday season at Hurst Antiques. The shop can count on longtime customers - as well as the children and grandchildren of those the store has survived. "Some things, I've bought back [from the families], and I'm glad to get 'em," Hurst said.
Hurst said he benefits from business travelers who fly into nearby Baltimore-Washington International Airport and come across the shop on their way to hotels on U.S. 1. As far as he is concerned, county improvements to the corridor will further encourage that kind of traffic, so he is all for the revitalization effort - especially if it succeeds in ridding the boulevard of sex shops and bargain motels.
"Pornography is a curse on the area it's in," said Hurst. "They say they have constitutional rights, but you can push constitutional rights to an extreme."
Farther down the boulevard, across the county line in Laurel, Rich Cook doubts officials will be able to push out the corridor's seedier establishments. What Cook, the owner of Attic Used Books, does see occurring is a wholesale upgrade of the boulevard's infrastructure with constant roadwork - an effort he says has "been a real pain," but which probably will be worth it in the end.
Cook, whose offerings include hardcover sets of Alexandre Dumas, Joseph Conrad and Sir Walter Scott, reports that sales have been up this holiday season compared with last year - an increase he suspects is linked to the recent downturn in the stock market.
"I have a theory that when people are worried about money, they're more likely to buy used books than new ones," said Cook, who has been at his location for 10 years. "The Nasdaq is 50 percent off its high for the year, which is pretty significant. That's a trillion-dollar cut in the phony money floating around, and with the Fed not doing much for now, it's going to be rough between now and the end of January.
"I got no problem with that," he added with a smile.
Mixed in with the old mainstays are the new arrivals, adding another layer to the corridor's quirky quilt. Elizabeth Fitzmaurice, co-owner of a new stained-glass supply shop at the year-old Columbia Junction plaza, reports that the shop is holding its own - despite its nondescript location, between Sapphire Nail Salon and Sapphire Tanning Salon.
"We're one of those businesses that doesn't expect to be overwhelmed with drop-in people," said Fitzmaurice. "But we do get some people who eat at the Taco Bell and see us and come over. We're surprised this little shopping center has as much traffic as it does."