Main Street thrives on diversity

Downtown: Shops that cater to tourists, legislators, students and longtime residents blend to make the retail scene in Annapolis successful, if ever-changing.

October 21, 2001|By SCOTT CALVERT | SCOTT CALVERT,SUN STAFF

The days when you could buy groceries in downtown Annapolis are long gone. And anyone searching for a drugstore along its narrow streets of brick and clapboard buildings won't find one.

But there is far more than just endless racks of T-shirts and postcards amid the sea of bars and restaurants.

The dozens of shops that line Main Street and a few tucked-away streets cater to a diverse crowd - tourists, legislators, Naval Academy midshipmen and, yes, ordinary residents. That mix, regulars say, is a big reason downtown works as well as it does.

"Annapolis just has a unique variety," said Denise Lindenhall, who lives with her husband, Lars, in nearby Arnold and makes a point of shopping in the compact downtown. "It's a combination of useful things as well as boutiquey, gifty, touristy type things."

As if to prove her point, she declared she would shop for her new grandchild not at a mall but at a children's store by City Dock, where people have been buying and selling since Colonial times.

Along the way she could, if she wanted, buy a hammer at Stevens Hardware or a $300 bottle of wine at Mills Wine & Spirit; a kazoo at the musty Public Sales Office or a $10,000 walnut chest at Hobson's Choice Antiques on artsy Maryland Avenue.

In her travels she might encounter some of the characters who have long populated the area and given it a distinct flavor. Among them: Vincenzo Pasqualucci, a white-maned, suit-wearing barber on Prince George Street who has been cutting hair and spinning tales in town for 40 years.

And while Annapolis sometimes seems frozen in time with its 18th-century architecture and scale, the retail scene is hardly static.

Hopkins Furniture, a Main Street fixture for 76 years, announced in late summer that it would be closing because owner Spencer Hopkins is retiring. The family is hoping the space will be leased for a new retail use.

The Governor's Grille, a dark-wood steak house on Main Street, closed this year. Owners say one reason for its demise was a state law barring lobbyists from treating legislators to fancy dinners.

Two national clothing retailers, Gap and Banana Republic, are to close in January, vacating their prime locations at the foot of Main Street. The stores will now concentrate on Annapolis Mall and Arundel Mills mall.

But turnover is not a sign of trouble, said Lou Hyatt, a veteran broker who owns Hyatt Real Estate. Rents are among the highest they have been, he said. Space near the water can reach $50 per square foot per year. For a small, 1,000-square-foot shop, that translates to yearly rent of $50,000.

While chain stores can afford to pay higher rents more easily than independent stores can, Hyatt said they have not taken over downtown partly because they need more space than is available.

Some familiar names dot the landscape - Ben & Jerry's, Starbucks and the Discovery Channel Store, among them -but so do many mom-and-pop stores with only one outlet. Since some small-business owners also own their buildings, rent is not an issue.

The presence of independent retailers means strollers on Main Street can peer in a shop window and see the proprietor's furry gray cat staring coolly back. Or they might spy some-thing they would not find else-where - a vase at the Annapolis Pottery on State Circle, say, or French place mats at Soiree on Main Street.

If the occasional arrival of a new shop alters the city's feel somewhat, so do changes of the calendar.

January brings state lawmakers and the mini-industry that supports the annual 90-day General Assembly session. Summer means tanned boaters and tourists in shorts, while autumn signals the return of midshipmen in dress uniforms and St. John's College students in Birkenstocks.

Area residents navigate the crowds any time of year, some of them walking big dogs. In colder months, when the area is least populated, students can be seen -hunched over their books at City Dock Cafe, warmed by a cup of hot Jamaican tea.

But some old-timers don't like what they see.

"It's gotten to be more and more touristy," said Howard Lerner, who presides over a quirky shop called Public Sales Office that his father opened 75 years ago. His wares include binoculars that don't need focusing, board games - and kazoos.

Lerner may have a point about the tourists. So many gift shops now vie for customers that it's not always easy to tell them apart. One store, Insight Concepts, bills itself as "the Uncommon Giftshop."

Lerner fondly recalls when downtown had two supermarkets, A&P and Acme. Now, he says, it embarrasses him to tell out-of-towners that there is no drugstore where they can pick up even basic toiletries.

At the same time, downtown Annapolis is a far healthier place economically than it once was, Hyatt said. The rowhouses that professionals now pay $1,200 a month to live in were essentially low-in-come housing 50 years ago, he said, and the area was known as Hell Point.

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