For more than four decades, some of the region's most high-profile women have shopped at the Jones & Jones boutique in Cross Keys. Come December, they'll have to find a new source for designer clothes and accessories.
The boutique known for its contemporary classic style will close in a matter of weeks, leaving a void in the once-thriving shopping center in Roland Park. Owner Florence Sokol, 70, will retire from the destination store, where she has worked since 1989. She purchased the business in 2002 from owner Sally Jones.
"Business is good. I'm young enough and healthy enough to enjoy retirement," said Sokol, who informed her staff of the closing this week.
While Sokol said "the timing for retirement was perfect" for her, others at Cross Keys expressed concern about the future of the upscale shopping destination. Jones & Jones' departure is the latest in a handful of recent closures, including Chico's, a major retail chain that closed earlier this year.
Betsy Wendell, owner of the Cross Keys boutique Octavia, said she was devastated when she learned that Jones & Jones was closing.
"It's such a loss," she said. "I am literally ill in my stomach. I'm sure there are reasons she's moving on, and that is great. In terms of retail, it brings a tear to the eye. She's been such a staple."
Wendell's boutique has been in Cross Keys for 50 years. The closing of Jones & Jones means yet another "blight" on the once-storied center, she said.
"Sadly, it's another gaping black hole for Cross Keys. Chico's closed on one end of the mall. And now this?" Wendell said. "It's not good for Cross Keys. She was a vibrant store with lots of employees and dedicated customers. It helped everybody in the center. The competition was good for business. The more people that come in the better for the competition."
Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp., which owns malls and shopping centers nationwide, including Harborplace in downtown Baltimore, purchased the Village of Cross Keys Shopping Center in 2012.
"The center is so sorry to see them go," said Michele Jacobs, spokeswoman for Cross Keys. "They brought a fashion sense. They brought a client-focus approach. They have been a mainstay of the center. They have been supporters of the community as well."
Jacobs said that the center will be actively working to fill the vacancies at Chico's and now Jones & Jones.
"Their void will never be filled because they are so iconic," Jacobs said in reference to Jones & Jones.
Sokol said she would have considered re-signing her lease and staying open another two years, but a significant rent increase plus a stalled renovation project promised by the center made it easier to retire.
Cross Keys referred questions about the center's leasing to Ashkenazy, which did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
"I was not prepared to pay more, when I didn't feel that they were going to do anything," she said. "I didn't want to be tied in. It made me make a decision."
The boutique's clothing buyer, Karen Ciurca-Weiner, chose not to purchase the business, deciding instead to pursue a career with Northern Pharmacy.
"I'm proud that I worked for such an amazing store and with such incredible people," she said. "However, I have decided to start this new chapter of my life in a completely different industry — one that really hits home for me on a personal level."
Sokol said she's seen a change in Cross Keys from its heyday, when it was the "go-to place" for everything.
"Cross Keys was the place to be on the weekends and certainly the most unique center around," she said. "Now the shops are working hard to drive their own business and create traffic in the center."
In addition, demands of customers have changed, according to the staff.
"Fashion has changed to meet the demands of a more casual lifestyle," Ciurca-Weiner said. "From the workplace to social scenes to events, people are not nearly as dressed-up as they used to be. The demand for couture clothing has diminished."
The challenges of boutique ownership don't end there, Wendell said.
"This business is not easy," she said. "We're back and forth to New York. It's an enormous amount of production. They have no idea how hard this job is. It's never-ending. When people look at the business and say it's so glamorous and fun, it's not as easy as it looks."
Jones & Jones has been a destination boutique for some of the region's best-dressed and most recognizable women. Former state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick has gone to Jones & Jones for 25 years to purchase outfits for every occasion.
"I loved their classic, contemporary clothes," she said. "I bought everything from something that I would wear to a cocktail party to something casual."
It was from Jones & Jones that Grasmick special-ordered a blue suit for her granddaughter's wedding. It's also where she got the frock she wore for her retirement celebration from the Maryland State Department of Education.
"It was perfect. It was elegant," she recalled. "These were important occasions for me."
Lainy LeBow-Sachs, the former chief of staff who served as the executor for the late Gov. William Donald Schaefer, has shopped at Jones & Jones for 45 years.
""I'm so sad. This is the best store in the world," she said.
LeBow-Sachs said she went to Jones & Jones for work and for "dressy" occasions such as the annual Baltimore Symphony Gala and Walters Art Museum Gala. In fact, the black, strapless, tea-length lace dress she wore to September's Symphony Gala was from Jones & Jones.
"People love Jones & Jones," she said while shopping at the boutique Wednesday. "They are so nice here. And tons of women shop here."
Jones & Jones was the only place that Lori Gotlieb said reminded her of the fashionable finds back in her native New York City.
"They are the place to be," said the Owings Mills-based contemporary jewelry designer, who has shopped at the boutique for 26 years. "When I go back to New York, I don't shop in New York. I shop at Jones & Jones. It was a little gem."
Jones & Jones became known for its array of pieces from haute designers such as Nicole Miller, Halston, Tracy Reese, Carol Peretz and Marchesa. The boutique offered exclusive lines such as Isabel de Pedro, Marcain, Jeread Derrel and Sita Murt. They also carried an extensive collection of jewelry that included offerings from the likes of Miriam Haskell.
"They had things that were different from any place around," Gotlieb said. "I have no idea where I will be buying clothes."
New York designer Carol Peretz, who dressed prominent women like Sally Field, Nancy Pelosi and the late Elizabeth Taylor, has sold her gowns and cocktail dresses at Jones & Jones since 2011.
"They truly understood their customers," Peretz said of Jones & Jones. "They knew what they wanted. At the end of the season, the amount of their markdowns were fewer than you would see elsewhere."
Peretz, whose clothes are sold throughout the country, purchased clothes from Jones & Jones regularly.
"I'm a designer, and I can shop anywhere. I shop at Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman. I also shop at Jones & Jones," she said. "There will be a void. Karen and Florence had a certain taste that I don't see elsewhere."
Jones & Jones has launched a retirement sale starting Thursday, with the entire store marked down 20 percent. Future sales will be announced weekly.
The boutique will also have an invitation-only closing party for top customers, friends and family in November.