In a celebration of staying power, Mayor Craig Moe and City Council members honored a select circle of Laurel businesses whose owners — for decades — have successfully navigated the fickle seas of labor and equipment costs, taxes, competition and paperwork.
At the Monday, Jan. 23, City Council meeting, about a dozen of those longtime business owners were present to receive certificates and commemorative city coins from the mayor and council members.
Some of the businesses, such as H.J. Poist Gas Co. and Slye's Barber Shop, have been on the Laurel landscape for 75 years, and Donaldson Funeral Home has been in business the longest: 80 years.
Others, like P.G. Office Supply, A.M. Kroop and Sons, Laurel Realty, the Gallery, Fred Frederick Chrysler, Bart's Barber Shop and Laurel Fuel Oil, have served customers continuously for more than 50 years. Rounding out the list are those operations that have been functioning for more than 20 years, such as Rainbow Florist and Delectables, and Dottie's Trophies.
Moe spearheaded the awards program after taking note of a recent American Express campaign "Small Business Saturday," which encouraged shoppers to buy from local, small businesses on the Saturday after Black Friday.
Using city records, Moe identified close to 30 operations that have had a major impact on life in Laurel for decades. He credited the city's finance chief, Michele Saylor, for coming up with the idea to honor the small businesses.
"I took it and ran with it," he said.
Moe said he felt proud to call many small owners his friend.
He said he went to school with Craig Frederick, whose father, Fred, started Fred Frederick Chrysler in 1959, and purchased his personal car from the dealership.
"And I've been to Poist several times," Moe said. "I try to stick local."
"A lot of businesses have stayed with Laurel through thick and thin," he said. "It's tough right now with the economy. The most important thing is we're saying 'thank you.' That goes a long way."
More than frames
When the Gallery began framing custom art and selling art supplies on Main Street in 1963, bread cost 22 cents a loaf, gas ran 29 cents a gallon and TV programs flashed across screens in black and white. In the mid-1970s, the store's co-founders, Leo Emery and his wife, Joyce, expanded to a second location just east of the post office on Main Street and called it Laurel Art Center. The new store offered more square footage for more art-related merchandise. In 1983, the couple's son, Randy, along with his wife, Cathy, bought the Gallery from his parents. The Laurel Art Center continues in its present location.
Emery, 56, played down the importance of awards, declaring that too many people get too many awards, "and it's gotten out of hand. ... I'm just a picture framer." Still, he said he was thankful that both family businesses have continued to serve their customer base for this long. "We've kinda had the same 200 people who come in here," he reported. "Some are in their 80s now."
Emery said he enjoys doing business on Main Street and being able to walk to work from his home on Post Office Avenue. "I like the closeness to everything. The (Laurel) Meat Market is right across the street. And since I was 15, I've been walking to the racetrack a couple of times a week. Right up the train tracks. I hope the police don't see me," he quipped. "You get to know all the bums. That's part of the fun."
Karl Brendle, the city's director of community planning and business services, said the small enterprises the city singled out for their longevity underscore a broader reminder.
"They're the true indicator of a true community as opposed to an artificial one," Brendle said. "They're what makes up the fabric of a community. Laurel is so fine-tuned through time. It's evolved naturally."
Businesses with staying power, Brendle added, "give people what they want. You tend to be loyal to those institutions."
'People keep coming in the door'
At Slye's Barber Shop on Montgomery Street, owner Granville Slye, 73, said his father, Granville Sr., began the shop in 1935 next door. He had one chair and, to the best of his knowledge, charged a quarter per cut. "But I heard a guy say it was 10 cents," Slye said.
By 1955, Slye was a newly minted barber school graduate. He picked up his scissors and joined his dad, and the price "was up to 75 cents." Slye, who works alongside his sons, Mark and Keith, joked that although he has stabilized the price for a basic haircut at $8, "I still can't make it." What's kept him in the game for so long, he believes, "has to be the people. When I started, we had mostly fire department trade. City Hall was on the corner across the street. Most of them have done passed away. I've never advertised."
Wearing a wry grin, Slye gave a simple reason for his shop's continued success.
"People keep coming in the door," he said with a shrug. "It's a job. I gotta have something to do."
All in the family
Laurel Realty traces its roots to the days when Roland L. Nichols Sr. started a brick contracting company, Roland L. Nichols Construction Co.
"That morphed into the real estate business," said Nichols' grandson Michael Anderson, 63, whose late mother, Peggy (Nichols) Anderson, was partners in the business with her two brothers, C. Philip Nichols and Roland L. Nichols Jr. Today, the business is run by Michael Anderson; and his sisters, Catherine DiPietro and Renee Spicer. Spicer's husband, John, is in charge of all maintenance and renovations to the properties.
The family now focuses exclusively on finding tenants for its rental properties, which include Laurel Gardens apartments and Park Terrace.
"I was kind of dragged into the business in college," Anderson said. "We started when we were kids, cutting grass and shoveling snow."
Anderson said his mother left him and his siblings with ample wisdom about business that they try to apply.
"We learned to watch the pennies. Don't spend money you don't have," he said.
Anderson said he also tries to work with his clients.
"A lot of people get greedy," he said. "Everybody's feeling somewhat of a pinch. If people are having a rough month and they can't pay rent, we will work with them. Treat people how you would like to be treated."
Customers stay customers
Others honored Monday night included the owners of H.J. Poist, a business that sells propane gas products to residential, commercial and industrial customers.
"We've had customers who have been with us for 20 and 30 years," said Dana Underwood, 25, who runs the Main Street business with her brother, Sean, 23. "We're able to provide our customers with a personal relationship that larger corporations can't. They stay with us because we serve them well. They tell their neighbors."
Poist was started by Dana Underwood's great-grandfather, Hohman Poist, in 1938. The business was then handed down to Poist's daughter, Virginia, who married Andy Underwood.
Dana Underwood said although both of her grandparents are retired, "they're still actively involved with the company." Today, the day-to-day operations are handled by Dana; her brother, Sean; and their dad, Michael Underwood.
With 18 employees, the family services about 6,000 customers in the Baltimore-Washington region.
"We do everything from providing heat for warehouses to providing fuel for fork lifts," Underwood said. One of their biggest accounts is a warehouse in Beltsville called Laser Ship. The company receives shipments from Amazon.com before distributing the products to delivery giants like UPS and FedEx.
"We supply the heat for their warehouse," Underwood said. "In the middle of the night, when it's 20 degrees out, they use a lot of gas."
Brendle said Laurel's Main Street and its plethora of family-run establishments represents Main Streets in Anytown, U.S.A.
"It can remind you of wherever you're from — New England, Texas," Brendle said.
He applauded Moe's sensitivity in shining the spotlight on those businesses that have withstood the test of time.
"What better way to recognize a community than by recognizing its past?" Brendle said.