Still in city, and growing

Furniture: To better serve its legions of customers, Shofer's is undertaking a major expansion of its South Baltimore emporium.

May 20, 2002|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

Shofer's, seller of some of Baltimore's highest-end furniture, is unfolding like a pull-out couch into the space next door.

The South Baltimore company, founded by Lithuanian immigrant Harry W. Shofer in 1914, has grown slowly during the years. The family that still owns it believes the time is right for a major expansion that will provide more and better-organized showroom space.

For the most part, sales have been stronger in furniture than in many retail sectors as the country emerges from recession. And Shofer's, which stayed in the city when most other furniture stores closed or moved to the suburbs, is poised to take advantage of its situation.

"My grandfather was adamant about not going to the county," said Henry Shofer, company president and the third generation to run the store. "He was very conservative. It was working, it was profitable every year, and he didn't see why we had to get much bigger. So, now, we're it for higher-end, new furniture in the city."

Even though most of his customers are in the Baltimore and Washington suburbs, Shofer wants to stay in the city because of the company's history in Baltimore and because a move from property it owns would be costly.

But space is an issue. The shop gradually moved to more expensive lines of furniture, such as $30,000 dining room sets, but physical growth has just crept along. The store is now a maze of rooms extending into neighboring buildings and connected through makeshift doorways.

Shofer plans to knock down four small stores that he currently owns and uses north of the 930 S. Charles St. store the company has occupied since the early 1930s. He will use that space and a neighboring parking lot to build a new wing.

Beginning in the first quarter of next year, six months of construction will add 20,000 square feet to Shofer's 40,000 square feet. Costs are expected to be $2 million to $3 million, paid for with bank loans and, perhaps, some city aid. Shofer's will keep its staff of 65, which includes sales people and interior designers, at its main store, a nearby warehouse and a bargain outlet across the street.

Industry observers said it could be a good time for Shofer's to expand.

The recession has taken a toll on retailers in Baltimore and across the country. Drugstores, discounters and furniture stores have rebounded the fastest, according to Sally Wallick, a retail analyst at Legg Mason Wood Walker Inc.

Home furnishers, in particular, have benefited from a housing market that remained strong through the economic downturn and "cocooning" or "nesting" by Americans stung by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she said.

Some large chains that sell furniture did not fare well in the recession and filed for bankruptcy, such as Levitz Furniture Inc. and Heilig-Meyers Co. Those that survived are largely eyeing the suburbs for expansion, so those that stuck it out in the cities might now have the market to themselves, Wallick said.

Smaller family companies such as Shofer's have also benefited as much of their local competition has faded away over the years. Gone are Baltimore names in furniture, such as Shaivitz, Fradkin Brothers and Levenson & Klein.

And local companies tend to know their customers.

"Providing good service is important because furniture is a big-ticket business and people live with it for a long time," Wallick said. "Those characteristics provide an opportunity for good local retailers to find their niche and do well. If Shofer's is doubling in size, that's probably a reasonable indication that they're doing OK."

The privately owned Shofer's does not release sales information.

Susan Anderson, a vice president with retail real estate brokerage H&R Retail, said Shofer's is fortunate to already have control over property in the city. Moving is costly, and large spaces are difficult to come by.

"A lot of tenants would like to be in the city, but it's a matter of finding the right location for them," she said. "A Wal-Mart needs 12 to 15 acres and that's not something you find in the middle of the city. If they can, it makes sense for Shofer's to expand where they are. They have space. Everyone knows where they are. And moving is always very expensive."

Shofer said the neighborhood did not want to lose the historic storefronts in which Shofer's is expanding. But many support the expansion because it will draw more people to the area. The city's architectural review panel has already approved the design. Shofer still needs to obtain demolition and building permits.

Federal Hill and the adjacent South Baltimore area have been successful at luring bars and restaurants, but other commercial expansion has been slow.

"It's been a problem in Baltimore, bringing back the retail component," said Sonny Morstein, owner of Morstein's Jewelers on Light Street and president of the South Baltimore/Federal Hill Marketplace Business Association. He is also helping lead the Federal Hill Main Street program that aims to fill vacancies and improve the area's look.

"Everybody wants [Shofer's] to stay. It's a win-win situation," Morstein said. "He gets more customers, and people look at the investment this man is making and think maybe they could, too."

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