A bit of a row on Antique Row Light rail project has hurt business, shop owners say


FROM HIS ELEGANT grove of 19th century mahogany, Earl Hogan contemplates the simmering heat and the light rail construction which has turned Antique Row into something of a battleground for customers.

Like many of the shop owners on Antique Row, Hogan is looking forward to a day when the Timonium to Glen Burnie train system may bring hundreds, perhaps thousands, of browsers to Baltimore's antiques headquarters; he suspects many potential shoppers avoid the area now because of their fears of traffic and parking.

Despite the construction, the antiques dealer says that business at Ruth & Earl's, 881 N. Howard St., is doing just fine. Some of his fellow dealers at the other end of the block, however, have had just about all they can take of city street improvements. They point out that this road work marks the third round of improvements to Howard Street in the past 10 years.

"Even UPS can't double park here right now," says Thelma Hilger, who owns Antique Treasury, 809 N. Howard St., with Phoebe Fisher. "This construction has cut into our business a lot. We usually have sales in the summertime, but with this going on, who cares?"

Antique Row, which includes shops on several nearby streets, has served as the city's antiques center for the past century or so. About 50 dealers operate in the 800 block of N. Howard Street, many of them included in two co-operative businesses. Since the early 1970s, the number of dealers has more than quadrupled, according to dealer Jimmie Judd, president of the Antique Row Dealers' Association and co-owner of a shop at 843 N. Howard St.

So has the antiques-buying public.

When Judd and Hogan came to the Row, most of the people who bought antiques tended to be well-heeled types over the age of 40. Now dealers also do a steady business with collectors in their 20s and 30s.

And many dealers agree that younger furniture buyers are choosing to purchase older, quality pieces which retain their values rather than new furniture which can rapidly depreciate.

"There's a whole new generation of buyers that appreciate th reproductions of the 1920s and 1930s," says Gary Hogan, Earl and Ruth's son who helps run the family's antiques businesses in Baltimore and Towson.

National trends support his observations.

"Ten years ago, we'd never seen a baby stroller at a show and today there's plenty of them," says Earl Streifthau, president of PTC the Association of Antiques Dealers of America, a national professional organization. He says the antiques industry has also managed to ride out the worst of the recession.

"Silver has held its prices. So have furniture and paintings. My business is china and our business has been good."

Because antiques dealers often rely upon sales to other dealers and regular customers, walk-in traffic is not always as vital as it is to other retailers.

Judd says that 60 to 70 percent of his customers live out of town.

"I have friends who have antiques shops in other cities and they tell me the same thing: They really do not depend on the local people," he says. "Someone who is coming here from out of town is not going to not come because of construction."

But that doesn't hold true for restaurants. Leilani's Hawaiian restaurant, 889 N. Howard St., has suffered from the road work, says co-owner Lloyd Wallace. Previously in Barre Circle, Leilani's built a good reputation and loyal clientele on such entrees as filet of salmon with lobster mousse and Dover sole with bananas. It opened on the Row last Thanksgiving.

As soon as the light rail construction began moving toward it, however, evening business declined.

"Some of our old customers' response was, 'Oh, you can't drive down that street, can you?" Wallace says. He expects improvement after the end of this phase of construction.

Two years ago, MTA officials began meeting with members of the Howard Street Merchants Association to discuss the construction timetable and what kind of street work it would entail. Since then the MTA has held monthly meetings to update the neighborhood on revisions in the construction schedule.

The pouring of concrete and laying of rails will be completed by the end of August, says Helen Dale, spokeswoman for the Mass Transit Administration.

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