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Alexandria's Commercial Heart Getting Infusion

Business owners find innovative ways to stay alive.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second of a three-part series addressing the changing face of retail in Alexandria with particular emphasis on the King Street corridor.

They say that numbers don't lie. If that's the case, then business should be booming in Alexandria, at least based on the conclusion of the King Street Retail Study that was cited in Part 1 of this series. Yet, many business owners in Alexandria say that they have never recovered from 9-11, that they're still waiting for their numbers to return to the level they saw before 9-11.

The good news is that they are not leaving; instead they are coming up with innovative ways to survive. Whether they're undergoing a reconfiguration, a move, a consolidation or developing a new business plan, Alexandria businesses are sticking it out, in one form or other.

Take the case of Madeleine Mitchell, owner of Madeleine's Kids. After seven years of running a profitable business on upper King Street, she decided that going online was the right answer for her. She created a website, www.madeleineskids.com, and is finding that it's much more profitable for her than trying to run a retail operation. She said that business never came back after 9-11 and that she was hurt by the DASH bus, which brought people right past her store. She also worried about her landlord raising the rent which he had done every year. Theft and parking were two other major problems for Mitchell.

"I solved the theft problem by putting sensors on all clothes but could not help the parking situation for my customers," said Mitchell. "Retail sales on King Street are not what they were before 9-11 and the free DASH bus has hurt a lot of walk-in traffic."

All of the above issues contributed to Mitchell's decision to go online. After a month-long closing sale, she shut the doors to her space on King Street permanently. Mitchell said that her new website is doing well.

"I found that most of my moms are going back to work earlier than they wanted to. I heard a lot of them talking in the store about how expensive it is raising a child and the cost of private school. I think a lot of them are very scared about the economy. Many of them indicated to me that after having the second child that they cannot get out to shop and were very excited about the online store.

"I also have a strong tourist customer base. I found that my online store was going to be the venue to keep them shopping at Madeleine's Kids, since they already knew the impeccable quality of my merchandise. They could shop at night online after putting the kids to bed and the tourist (grandmothers) could shop all year long for their grand babies.

"I feel like a free bird. I cannot tell you how many cello and piano recitals I missed from working seven days a week. Phillips and Bryant [daughter and husband] really wanted to see more of me. Now they can."

Further down King Street is another closing sign. For the past few weeks, Egerton Gardens has also been having a close-out sale.

SAY IT AIN'T SO, JOE. It's not. In this case owner Joe Egerton is just realigning. He has found that the craft business sustained by his other store, Arts Afire, was much more profitable than his home and garden line at Egerton Gardens. He ran a close-out sale through the end of March to deplete his current inventory. He will close for a few weeks and then re-open as Arts Afire Craft Gallery sometime in May.

Egerton still feels good about doing business in Alexandria and is looking forward to his new business.

"The decision on my part was because the craft store was doing better than the home furnishings business, that had taken a downturn after 9-11 and it was a slower recovery than the craft business. I have a better location here on King Street, and a craft business involves the same effort and expenses, so I thought I'd capitalize on the location," said Egerton.

He said that the new store will carry the same quality of craft that they have at Arts Afire, but will have a different emphasis.

"We'll have small craft furniture in metal and wood, ceramics and Annie glass," said Egerton. "There's so much talent and the pieces will all be unique, or as the English call them, one-offs."

Egerton said that some of the artists would be local, but they will also buy crafts from all over America. They will also feature some foreign products, including Isle of Wight Glass from England.

BOWHE AND PEARHE left Alexandria for a larger space in Arlington. Owner Per Huge-Jensen wants his customers to know that they have not closed; they have merely moved a short distance away. Their new space at 2847 Clarendon Boulevard, is near the new Cheesecake Factory, Container Store and Crate & Barrel. Huge-Jensen said that it's in a retail-centric area, a desirable factor for a retailer's success.

Not that their location on South St. Asaph Street wasn't successful. It did well during the five years that it was there. In fact, Huge-Jensen had planned to open the Arlington store in addition to the Alexandria store. However, a notice by the landlord that the lease would more than double when their five-year lease expired forced him to rethink that plan and instead moved the business from Alexandria to Arlington.

"We signed a deal to open the store in Arlington two years ago. It's a great location and we got a great rate, it's much more conducive to retail," said Huge-Jensen. "Our numbers are double what they were in Old Town; we need a lot of foot traffic. So many people were mad or sad when we left that we probably would have stayed if the rent didn't increase."

That's not to say that Bowhe & Pearhe won't return to Alexandria. Huge-Jensen has already looked at other Alexandria sites for another store. He believes that Alexandria, King Street in particular, is undergoing a transformation, and plans to sit back and wait and see where a new store would be best suited. He and his wife, Sherrie, are committed to this area, having been residents of Old Town for several years. They live not far from where the store was originally located and are in the process of completing a major renovation to their home.

"I believe that it's easier to be a homeowner in Alexandria than a business owner," said Huge-Jensen. "I give the city credit for keeping the integrity of the area. The homes are well kept and it attracts tourists, but I think that they follow it [the guidelines] too hard for the businesses. It's hard for top-notch retailers to do what they need to do to operate efficiently."

One example of a restriction is that of signage. Bowhe & Pearhe has the same signage on their stores in Arlington; Bethesda, and Princeton, N.J. Yet, Huge-Jensen said he couldn't do that in Alexandria.

"The restrictions make it hard to brand the way I want to," said Huge-Jensen. "But it's nice to live in Old Town; if the right opportunity comes along, we [Bowhe & Pearhe] will be back."

CONSOLIDATION WILL HELP Doris Reither, owner of Mikel's Antiques and Interiors, with her business. She is in the process of selling her line of gardening accessories and supplies. This will also be the first year that the store will no longer sell plants and flowers. Although the decision to phase out the above was initially made due to health problems, she will benefit from the smaller space that she will have after her neighbor, Charles Oppman, takes some of her space. Oppman is the proprietor and chef of Café Marianna and had been leasing a portion of her store occasionally for special events. If things go as planned, he will take a portion of Mikels and build an area specifically for parties and catered events. Reither said that she will still leave a couple of her china cabinets in the space to lend it atmosphere. She will then consolidate the merchandise that she has left into the smaller area.

"We don't need this much space," said Reither, who has no plans to close. "I'll continue to stick it out; I think it's going to get better."