Watson's Garden Center, a fixture in Lutherville for nearly all of its six decades in business, will close its doors this month.
The family-owned retailer, known for a Christmas shop that at one time featured live reindeer, kicked off a liquidation sale over the weekend. Prices were slashed on remaining tools and fertilizers, bird seed and feeders, Weber grills, soil, mulch and tropical plants.
Owner Henry Marconi could not be reached for comment Monday. The closing and sale were advertised in The Baltimore Sun over the weekend.
Independent nurseries and garden centers have faced growing and intense competition from big box home improvement chains such as Home Depot and Lowe's.
For independently owned hardware stores and garden centers, "the big boxes are always looming challenges," said Pete Bieneman, general manager for the past 28 years of Green Fields Nursery & Landscaping Co., located at its current site in Mount Washington since the early 1940s.
Bieneman said Watson's closing saddened him, adding that nobody in the industry likes to see anybody go out of business.
Three Watson brothers started the business in 1955 in a two-car garage on Chesapeake Avenue in Towson. They built and opened the store at 1620 York Road in 1961, according to a Baltimore Sun article.
Watson's grew during the 1960s and 1970s from lawn mower and tractor sales and repair to a full-service garden center, nursery and greenhouse. The store expanded into Weber grills in the 1980s, according to Watson's website. Marconi, nephew of former owner Robert C. Watson Sr., eventually took over the business.
Towson resident Brad Cox said making a trip to see Christmas tree ornaments at Watson's had been an annual holiday tradition for his family when his kids, now 18 and 14, were growing up.
"That piece of our shared history is going away," said Cox, a real estate agent for Long & Foster. "It's sad to see it go after all these years."
Janie Kordish , a just-retired Baltimore County elementary school teacher, recalled going to Watson's while growing up in Towson and how an aunt would give her a Christmas ornament from the store every year.
"My parents used to come here," Kordish said Monday while browsing at the store. "It was your go-to place," for summer plants or troubleshooting on a grill. "It's a shame."
Watson's Fireplace and Patio, a separate business next door to the garden center on York Road, will remain open, according to the store closing advertisement in The Baltimore Sun.
Besides facing competition from big chains, many garden centers and nurseries struggled during the recession as consumers cut back on ornamental plants and other discretionary purchases, said Carrie Engel, treasurer and board member of the Maryland Nursery, Landscape and Greenhouse Association.
"It's something people spend their discretionary income on, and the most growth has been in edibles," such as fruit trees and tomato plants, said Engel, who also is greenhouse manager at Valley View Farm in Cockeysville, which she called a "friendly" competitor to Watson's.
But the biggest challenge has been the opening of Home Depot and Lowe's locations nearby, she said, which have "changed the way people shop."
Shoppers who came in to Watson's at a steady pace Monday strolled through a fast emptying garden center, looking for bargains on what was left of artificial Christmas trees, tree stands, garlands, ornaments, pottery, birdbaths, garden tools, gloves and fertilizers, among other items.
The outdoor garden area, filled each spring with blooming annual and perennials, had been cleared out for the winter, but even in the greenhouse only a few plants remained.
Jessica Childres, a Reservoir Hill resident who manages an after-school program, was buying discounted cactus plants and a small tree for her home. She said she'd noticed the store closing signs while driving by over the weekend and decided to return one last time before everything was gone.
"We are out here all the time. It's sad," Childres said. "We always come to buy Christmas presents."
Inside, shoppers filled carts with Christmas ornaments and holiday dishes. A sign indicated an overhead miniature train track was for sale. Two Weber models stood alone in what had once been the grill department.
Kathleen Baden, a North Baltimore resident looking at an assortment of clay pots, said she hadn't minded paying what she believed were higher prices for plants at Watson's compared with home improvement chains because the quality seemed better. Watson's closing would leave fewer non-chain choices, she said.
"I'll probably make the trek out to Cockeysville" to Valley View Farms, she said.
Bieneman said he still sees a demand for independent nurseries from consumers seeking an extra layer of service.
"There are people behind the garden centers, managers and people who specialize in different departments," Bieneman said. "We remember someone's name and the type of geranium they get every spring."