Rhythmic thumping of techno music filled the air as a series of models draped in fall fashions strutted across the T-shaped runway.
In September, a majority of Cross Keys retailers joined together to produce a series of fashion shows to highlight new fall fashions. Store owners reported near-record sales. And the evening was capped by a fashion show and catered cocktail party celebrating the 40th anniversary of the boutique Ruth Shaw Inc. That day, Cross Keys seemed to return to its past glory.
"It was incredible here. There was so much energy," said Karen Ciurca-Weiner, manager and buyer for Jones & Jones, a boutique. "Every store here said the same thing. It was an energy that had been lacking for some time. We want to get that back."
That's the challenge for Cross Keys, the shopping center set amid James W. Rouse's planned community in North Baltimore. The longtime home of some of Baltimore's most fashionable stores has been contending with unprecedented competition. Now, with new stores and renovations in the works, its owners and shopkeepers are looking to reassert the center's position in Baltimore.
"We're looking to make Cross Keys a destination as an entire center," Ciurca-Weiner said. "We're trying to create a mix of events that appeal to all age groups."
The Village of Cross Keys was an early experiment for Rouse, who built the community for 5,000 on part of the Baltimore Country Club's former golf course in Roland Park. The community also included dozens of independent establishments whose offerings ranged from clothes shopping to gourmet dining. Through the decades, regularly drew affluent shoppers and visiting celebrities such as Gene Hackman and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. When Oprah Winfrey lived in Cross Keys, she was known to frequent Cross Keys Deli.
Scott Wable, owner of the design denim boutique Jean Pool, recalls when he first worked in Cross Keys in 1999.
"We were slammed," he said, "It was so busy. We had three full-time employees working at the same time."
Competition for shoppers has grown in recent years. In addition to online shopping and the offerings in New York and Washington, Cross Keys has also had to contend with the addition of a luxury wing at Towson Town Center and the creation of Harbor East.
"When Harbor East opened, that's when it slowed down," said Wable.
Barbara Monfried, who worked at United Colors of Benetton during the mid-1980s, hasn't been to Cross Keys in seven years. She prefers areas that are more centrally located, such as Harbor East, Towson Town Center and Fells Point.
"Back then, all the stores did very well. There wasn't the pressure or competition," she recalled. "It was really more of a community."
Monfried said she would people watch during her breaks at Cross Keys.
"It was a really wealthy area. Everybody knew each other," said Monfried, who now works in Fells Point. "It was old money. It was all the Roland Park kids. They had store accounts."
Rene F. Daniel, a principal with commercial real estate brokerage Trout Daniel & Associates, said Cross Keys declined because of competition from Towson Town Center to the north and Harbor East to the south. Daniel believes Towson Town Center has had success attracting expensive stores because the owner, General Growth Properties, manages numerous shopping centers and can establish leasing deals across a number of outlets. General Growth formerly owned Cross Keys.
In addition, "Harbor East has affected all the retail in Baltimore," he said. "Harbor East represents major competition to the leasing effort in Cross Keys. The efforts to re-tenant the area have been slowly developing."
But store owners in Cross Keys say their center is building on its recent momentum. With several new tenants and a plans for a major renovation, Ciurca-Weiner and other members of the Cross Keys business community think they can capture the same magic that made Cross Keys one of the city's premier shopping areas for several decades.
"There is still a vitality here," Patti Bavis-Puller, owner of Chezelle, a boutique for full-figured women. She owned her boutique since 1992. "There is a good feeling."
Though the center is home to names such as Williams-Sonoma, Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spa and Chico's, many of the store owners feel that the area is ready for something new
After operating a pop-up shop in Cross Keys for the better part of the year, Renaissance Fine Arts recently relocated there from its Pikesville location. Men's boutique Samuel Parker Clothier will move into the center from its current Mount Washington store early next year.