Todd Unger didn’t officially decide until a few days ago to shut down Natty Boh Gear, the store he’s run for the past dozen years in Fells Point. The shop at 1624 Thames St. that sells T-shirts and novelties honoring such Baltimore icons as Natty Boh and the Utz girl will close permanently at the end of business on Saturday.
Unger had gone back and forth for months, trying to find a reason to hang on. But, when the sign that had welcomed visitors in from the street finally came down Friday afternoon, Unger knew there was no turning back.
“We are humbled by how many people have been so supportive of us for so long,” Unger said. “We have a customer who wanted the sign for his collection, so we gave it to him. But when it got taken down, that was one of the hardest moments.”
Items in the store currently are being sold for 50 percent off the original price, Unger said. The discount will increase to 75 percent on Saturday, the final day.
He said he made the decision reluctantly, after the store had suffered three years of declines beginning with the unrest following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who suffered fatal injuries in April, 2015 while riding in the back of a police van.
”For nine years, we knew exactly what our schedule would be each year,” Unger said. “A slow season would be followed by St. Patrick’s Day, and then there would be baseball and summer tourism. But after the riots, our business fell off 75 percent.”
He said that if the decrease in foot traffic in 2015 had been the only problem, his business might have weathered that difficulty. But, the uprisings were followed by the escalating homicide rate that he said frightened potential visitors away from downtown. In the meantime, the character of Fells Point gradually was changing from a mix of restaurants and bars and retail to becoming a neighborhood that catered heavily to diners and drinkers.
He attempted to expand his business into wholesale sales, but Unger said there were licensing issues. Then, in September, Unger learned he would lose his lease because the building’s owner wanted to bring in a new pizzeria. The Sun could not immediately reach the landlord for comment Friday afternoon.
”We tried to hold on,” Unger said. ”We just didn’t get the breaks when we needed them.”
Natty Boh Gear currently has two employees: Unger, who is looking for a job in business, while “Mr. John” Webb, the face of the store for the past decade, is of retirement age.
A second retail location in Canton Self Storage sells limited Natty Boh gear, and Unger said he’s planning on phasing out that aspect of the business. Instead, he’ll use that space to develop another business selling items featuring the Maryland state flag and other state trademarks that will be guaranteed to have been manufactured in Maryland.
”I’m not crying,” Unger said. “We’ve had a great run, and we had a great relationship with our landlord. It’s actually kind of overwhelming how many people have come to say goodbye and buy stuff.
”I just wish we could have caught a break or two along the way.”