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Tomlinson Craft Collection closes its last store in Hunt Valley

After 40 years, Tomlinson Craft Collection is slipping into Baltimore's retail history.

Located in Hunt Valley Town Centre, the last of the Tomlinson "galleries" is slated to close this summer, felled by "Internet sales and the economy," according to Bernardo Grinblat, managing partner of Tomlinson Craft Collection Inc. 

The Liquidation Sale sign belies the fine goods that glitter, glow and gleam within. Tomlinson features high-end contemporary crafts created by American artists, with stores  previously located in the Rotunda, in Roland Park, Harbor Place, in downtown Baltimore, and Towson Commons.

"I think the closing is sad for the community," Amy Sponseller, of Towson, said. "There's no other place like it locally. I prefer crafts. I like the individuality of the design."

It has been depressing to hear from all  these people who have been buying from the store for so many years who are  so upset to hear about the closing, Grinblat said.

"People come in and see it's like a museum. Unfortunately, some treat it like a museum. They enjoy looking but they don't buy," Grinblat said.

Grinblat and his wife, Arlene, purchased the corporation from founder Ginny Tomlinson McKechnie in 1998. At that time, crafts were popular and plentiful. 

This was not the case when Ginny Tomlinson opened her flagship store in the Rotunda mall in 1973.

"She was a pioneer," Grinblat said. "She had to work hard to find places and people to buy from."

Among others, the store still sells the work of New England glass artist Josh Simpson, whose creations also are sold internationally and who employs eight assistants now.

But 40 years ago, when he met Ginny Tomlinson at a craft show 40 years ago in Rhinebeck, N.Y., and she ordered some of his blown glass items, he was living in the back of his dad's pickup truck.

"I have fond memories of Ginny," Simpson said. "I had borrowed a card table from my uncle to put my glass on, when Ginny came up to me, told me about her gallery and wanted to place an order. It hadn't occurred to me to bring a pen and paper or when she handed me her business card, to have a card of my own.

"She helped me become a business person," said Simpson who crafts vases, bowls, portals and more. "She was always very tolerant of the eccentricities of the people she took care of. She made our work precious through her respect and admiration. It made all of us take what we did more seriously."

'Classy, dramatic, tasteful'

McKechnie developed an appreciation for handmade things when her first husband, William Tomlinson, was stationed in the military in Bavaria in the 1950s, said the now-84-year-old. Ginny Tomlinson McKechnie has been married to Randall McKechnie for the last 34 years. The couple moved to Broadmead seven years ago.

She realized there was a market for them in the United States. "I have no talent in crafts," she said. "Maybe that's why I appreciated them so."

Her choices were right on the mark, it appears, unlike her choices of locations in which to expand. Harbor Place and Towson Commons "were  expensive experiments," she said.

McKechnie was past 65 and her children were grown when she sold the Rotunda store to the Grinblats.

"In a way it was a hard decision. I loved the crafts people and the the customers who shopped there were such nice people. I miss them," McKechnie said. 

But retail is a hard life with long hours, she said. "It was time."

And crafts are so much more sophisticated now, she said." I used to put up artists at my house. Now they stay at the best hotels."

The Rotunda store looked good to the Grinblats in 1998. "When we heard Ginny wanted to retire, we looked at it, liked it and bought it. The numbers made sense," he said. 

Grinblat said that five years after the couple bought it, they expanded and remodeled, showing mostly American-made crafts. "The store was a success," Grinblat said.

Edenwald resident Betty Walter recalls the store. "It was marvelous," she said. "It could be very expensive, but what you got was classy, very dramatic but always tasteful."

But the Rotunda mall changed hands twice after that, first to a California company that didn't specialize in retail, and in the 2000s to Hekemian & Co., whose schedule for a mixed-use redevelopment of the mall has yet to reach the construction stage.

Eight years ago, as their Rotunda business continued to decline,  the Grinblats set up shop in Hunt Valley, lured by the customers a new Wegman's at that mall would bring, and by the prospect of a location that would feature a number of other specialty boutique stores. 

"That's the kind of clientele we needed," Grinblat said. "But it turned out to be nearly all chain stores instead."

"We tried very hard to stay in business," said Grinblat, who said he and his wife closed the Rotunda store two years ago. "But we have been losing money for many years and we can't do it anymore. We can't afford to renew the lease."

The irony is that since they put the closing sign up on July 5, they've been very, very busy, he said. "Business had increased 10-fold," Grinblat said.

A volatile economy has always been tougher on small businesses, said Keith Scott, president of the Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce, "particularly for those relying on discretionary income. 

"Big corporations can withstand hits and borrow money. Smaller businesses often have to close down," Scott said. 

Grinblat is not glib about it, but he said he can find some consolation in the closing. 

"I came to this country from Argentina in 1978," he said. "This will be the first Christmas season that I don't have to work."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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