Towson, a once-struggling retail center overcome by malls, is being redefined as a bustling entertainment hub, but some of the recent changes are triggering alarm in the conservative community.
Today, ethnic restaurants, espresso bars and Funscape's proposed 10-screen complex of movies and high-tech games lend excitement to Towson's York Road. But the evolution also has brought some gasps of distress among county officials and business owners as billiards parlors, an erotic lingerie shop and not one, but two, tattoo parlors have set their sights on the county seat.
"With the exotic stores in the area, it's almost getting to be like The Block," says Alex Rudolph, whose family has run the Towson Bootery on York Road for 37 years.
That's a big change for Towson, long known for a small-town feel. Until a few years ago, the town was dominated by mom-and-pop businesses: a hardware store, pharmacy, grocery and eateries specializing in grilled cheese.
"This was a real straight-laced town. It was very conservative," said Joseph Varvaro, owner of Angel's Grotto, one of Towson's oldest taverns."But things have to change or we'd still be wearing high-button shoes."
Today, Towson's restaurants, shops and movies are a big draw for residents of suburbs around the Beltway. And much of the recent commercial development has been driven by the town's proximity to area colleges -- a phenomenon that Towson State University president Hoke L. Smith calls "the Georgetowning of Towson."
With 20,000 workers coming into town on weekdays in addition to thousands of college students, Towson has become a lucrative spot for restaurateurs.
Carlos and Pauline Taylor opened Live It Not Diet, a West Indian eatery and market, nine months ago in the 500 block of York Road. "We thought the surrounding colleges and professionals would appreciate this food," says Mrs. Taylor, a Jamaican native.
Mexican restaurant Flutie Garcia's also settled in Towson this summer. "I see a resurgence of the Towson area," says manager Ron Sliwoski. "It's an entertainment mini-Mecca."
But that trend also led to the opening two years ago of a Love Ones lingerie store, with its scantily clad storefront mannequins, and Four Corners Games, a pool hall and arcade game room that opened recently in a former clothing store.
Another billiards parlor and upscale deli, to be called Rec Room Billiards, is scheduled to open by the end of the year in the old Towson Theater. It will be run by three grandsons of the family who operated the cinema from 1959 until it closed three years ago.
"It's going to be a fun place," promised Brian Recher, 35, who is promoting the renovated 1927 movie house as a family entertainment center.
Longtime Towson business owners have grudgingly accepted the new breed. Until proposals for the tattoo parlors appeared, that is.
The parlors, which also would offer body piercing, would be in second-floor locations of the 400 block of York Road, across from Towson Commons. But before they can open, they need approval from the county zoning commissioner.
Board members of the Towson Business Association voted last week to oppose the tattoo parlors. "I personally have reservations and concerns about that type of business," association president Kenneth F. Mills Jr. said at the meeting.
Adds Republican county Councilman Douglas B. Riley, who represents Towson, "I'm a little frustrated when everything is going so well to have a tattoo parlor coming to town."
But the owners of the tattoo parlors say there will be no lack of business in Towson, and that they deserve a shot at it.
"There's plenty of naked flesh in the world," said Ed "Mouse" Massimiano, 37.
He owns Main Street Tattoo Studio in Edgewood, and he hopes to expand to a spot above the Angel's Grotto in the 400 block of York Road.
Vinnie Myers, 33, of Little Vinnies Tattoos in Westminster, says he feels confident about opening his shop above the Towson Bootery. "If people will listen with an open mind, I'm certain that we will relieve their concerns."
Meanwhile, more mainstream businesses continue to relocate or expand on Towson's Main Street, York Road.
Craig Pollack, 30, opened Fraternity Row -- a shop that offers customized embroidered items to college fraternities and sororities -- in Towson in 1992. "We knew we wanted to be in Towson," he said.
He and his wife, Roxanna, recently relocated their expanding business, which they've renamed Town & Campus Dry Goods to attract a broader clientele, to the 400 block of York Road.
Next door, the 12,000-square-foot plus Hudson Trail Outfitters store, in the former Mano Swartz fur salon, is set to open next month. It will target outdoor enthusiasts with an indoor waterfall and stream with live fish, tent displays and a dirt-like path meandering through the two-level store, said Hank Cohan, general manager of Hudson Trail's 10 East Coast stores.
And even though new businesses are becoming more visible in Towson, many old-timers have chosen to stay.
Norman Bodarky, 66, of Towson Artist Supply said he has no plans to leave the town after 40 years of business.