Selling a bit of charm, tradition

Retail: Mom-and-pop shops in Catonsville help keep a `Main Street' feel while fending off big-box stores.


September 26, 2004|By Seth Rosen | Seth Rosen,SUN STAFF

Sitting on a wooden chair in the corner of Appalachian Bluegrass Shoppe on Frederick Road in Catonsville, owner Emory Knode patiently explains to a customer the diverse, lush tones that his variety of Martin Guitars can produce.

Steve Bell has been strumming a Martin HD 28 V, but he isn't sure whether he is ready to commit to the $2,075 acoustic instrument.

"I'm going to look at a couple of other stores," says Bell, a Parkville resident. "This is the first time I've been in Catonsville in years."

It's not unusual to find someone walking the streets of Catonsville searching for the perfect instrument. The southwestern suburb of Baltimore is sometimes referred to as "Music City Maryland" because of the seven music shops along the Frederick Road corridor that have brought professional and novice musicians there for the past four decades.

`The anchor business'

"The music stores are the anchor business for Frederick Road," says Knode, who turned his father's acoustic music shop - the first such business to open in Catonsville, in 1960 - into Appalachian Bluegrass in 1981. "Everybody benefits from the foot traffic."

Though the music stores may be Catonsville's most famous businesses, residents say that they are equally proud of the other mom-and-pop shops that provide the suburb with a sense of tradition and stability that enables it to retain its small-town ambiance. However, local merchants are experiencing increased competition from big-box stores such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot, and a revitalization effort is under way to ensure that Catonsville doesn't lose its "Main Street" feel.

"The community gets that you need to support local businesses," said Peirce Macgill, a revitalization specialist for the county's Department of Economic Development. "This is their back yard."

The stability of the community enables independent stores to flourish, says Bruce VanDervort, executive director of the Greater Catonsville Chamber of Commerce.

`Plymouth Rock'

The Swimmer family has run Plymouth Wallpaper for 108 years and has several national and international clients. For the past 30 years, the business has been on the 700 block of Frederick Road.

"We've been around so long that generation after generation keeps coming to us," says Dotty Swimmer. "Some call us the `Plymouth Rock' because we're the staple of the Catonsville area."

The Chamber of Commerce is working with Baltimore County to devise ways to market the town, help store owners fix up their properties and recruit more destination businesses that will draw customers from outside the region, VanDervort says.

"It's a charming village with nice boutiques, unique businesses, historic buildings, and we are trying to develop it into an attraction," says VanDervort, who believes that the suburb's location near Baltimore, Baltimore-Washington International Airport, Interstate 95 and the Baltimore Beltway will appeal to potential investors.

Catonsville is one of Baltimore County's 13 designated revitalization districts, which makes property owners eligible for incentive programs such as tax credits, development assistance, business improvement loans and an architect-on-call program, Macgill says.

From 1999 to 2000, the county and Maryland State Highway Administration spent $2.25 million in streetscape beautification projects that added brick sidewalks, trees, benches and light posts to Frederick Road, Macgill says. Underground telephone lines were also installed to improve the look of the corridor.

The goal of the revitalization effort is to increase the foot traffic on Frederick Road and entice people from inside and outside the Catonsville area to shop and eat in the corridor on a regular basis, Macgill says.

"If people know that they can park their cars and walk to several shops, they are more likely to come," says Randy Austin Jr., a guitar teacher at Appalachian Bluegrass. "It's the thing where success begets more success."

New restaurants

Several new restaurants opened this summer on Frederick Road. Matthew's 1600 Restaurant and Bar replaced the former Wharfside restaurant, which had been out of business for a year. Chinese and Italian restaurants moved into a $3 million two-story mixed-use building at 730 Frederick Road.

"More people are eating out now," says Tom Booth, who developed the property. "These restaurants will attract people to come to the Catonsville area."

The Ships Cafe & Sports Pub has been so busy that it often has to turn potential customers away at the door, Sharon Andrews says. Andrews, who owns the property with her husband, Jim, built a new wing that tripled the restaurant's size by adding three new dining rooms, a deck and a party room.

But not every store on Frederick Road has enjoyed prosperity of late. Muir Hardware, one of the pillars of the community, is closing after 69 years. National chains, like Home Depot, have established stores along nearby Baltimore National Pike and taken much of Muir's business, owner Jay Muir says.

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