After taking early retirement from his job as a computer security consultant, Ronald Lauzon set up a small shop last February on Baltimore's famed Antique Row, buying and selling turn-of-the-century paintings.
Ten months later, Lauzon abandoned the century-old haven for fine furniture, art, rare books and other antiques in the 800 block of N. Howard St. He found a new spot for his business -- at an antiques mall in New Oxford, Pa.
"I went nine Saturdays without a sale," said Lauzon, 59, of his brief time on Antique Row, on the northwest edge of the city's downtown business district. "There were weeks from Monday to Friday when four people came in. It gets pretty depressing, believe me."
Lauzon's experience is hardly unique. Longtime dealers say the number of open stores on Antique Row has sunk to an all-time low, with about half the 35 stores vacant, used for storage or for sale.
Some even wonder whether the string of antiques stores -- which in recent decades has survived the disappearance of the city's nearby department stores, increased crime and the disruption from the construction of the light rail line -- may ever be able to reclaim its past glory.
Aside from the obvious signs, shop owners are faced with a new antiques retailing reality: stiffer competition from suburban dealers.
"There are a lot of shops for sale. That's sad. And we don't know what would entice people to come back," said Frank J. Rutkowski Jr., a 32-year-old dealer who owns Connoisseur's Connection. "The city concentrates on the Inner Harbor and Fells Point. We've been an antique center for 100 years, and we're kind of forgotten."
M. J. "Jay" Brodie, head of the city's economic development agency, agreed the city could do more, citing the possibility of business loans to improve the buildings.
"It's a valuable asset, and it would be a shame to lose it," he said.
As long as a "pretty good nucleus" of dealers remains, Antique Row can survive, Brodie said, but: "Life changes, and folks have to change with it. I'd encourage Antique Row to adapt and market itself more aggressively. Retail is the fastest-changing segment of American business."
As it is, the only visible signs of urban vibrancy left on Antique Row are the gaslights and silk banners marking it as Maryland's best place to buy antiques. Bleak is the only word to describe the empty brick sidewalks on a winter afternoon.
The scene is a far cry from what it once was, even as the economy booms and the stock market purrs.
Antique Row began as a 19th-century center of cabinetmaking, evolving from a manufacturing to a commercial area as fine furniture began to be resold and recycled.
It reached its zenith in the 1950s, spurred by its proximity to the city's large department stores a few blocks south. Then, more than 50 dealers were in business on both sides of the street. In the 1960s, shops on the west side were razed for the expansion of Maryland General Hospital.
But the closing of the department stores -- the last one, Hutzler's, closed at the end of 1989 -- contributed to the decline of Antique Row, and the construction of the light rail line in 1989 and the early 1990s accelerated it.
Still, as recently as a decade ago, Antique Row was thriving, said Angela R. Thrasher, who owns Angela R. Thrasher Antiques and Fine Art. "People were clamoring to come here," she saidof fierce competition for storefronts. Thrasher has put her shop up for sale, for personal reasons, she says -- but she believes the row will revive.
Other dealers also remember the 1980s as "rocking and rolling," as Philip S. Dubey, owner of Dubey's Art & Antiques, put it.
James "Jimmie" Judd, whose family-owned continental antiques shop has been a strong presence for 25 years, said, "There will always be an Antique Row, as long as I'm alive, anyway." His 87-year-old mother, Catherine, keeps the books, and his son Jay polishes the brass.
Despite his optimism, Judd said, "I wish we had 20, 30 more dealers on this street," because dealers specializing in one period or country don't compete directly with each other.
A shop closes
Tim Naylor, 34, who has not fared as well and closed his shop last year, said, "Just like Howard Street is no longer where you go to do your Christmas shopping, likewise Howard Street is not where people go antiquing" on Sunday afternoons.
Naylor, owner of Naylor Antiques for five years, said he saw a steady fall in the number of pedestrians that began with the construction of the light rail line. The rent he paid for his shop space was gradually reduced by his landlord, from $1,250 in his first year, 1992, to $650 in 1996.
Naylor said, "In the end, I couldn't do better than break even."
Most disturbing to longtime dealers is that others are not lining up to replace those who leave.
Dealer E. A. Mack pointed to what he took as an ominous harbinger and almost a violation of the street's good name: Naylor's shop is now a hair and nail salon.
Mack and others say safety concerns are contributing to the slump. "It's the story of urban America, crime and blight," said Mack.
Though police foot patrols keep a close eye on the neighborhood, merchants say they have fewer and fewer customers from the counties because of the perception of risk. And Howard Street is not the only place to browse as more antique marts have sprung up in suburban counties.
Cockeysville dealer Rick Davis of the Packrat said, "Right now I have six people in the store. If I were in Howard Street right now, I guarantee I wouldn't have that."
The best customers -- described by dealers as affluent couples in their 50s and 60s, with college tuition bills paid -- are not showing up in large numbers. And when they do, they are likely to be from out of town.
"What's really missing is the walk-in traffic, the Baltimore people," said Lauzon.
Pedestrians and motorists fell out of the habit of stopping by Antique Row during the city's light rail construction, which tore up the street, sidewalk and parking places for three years, from 1989 to 1992.
"We've never really recovered foot traffic," said Thrasher.
Lauzon and Naylor said it did not make economic sense for them to stay as tenants. Those who remain are largely owners. One, Thayne Williams, owner of Thayne's Antiques, has been on the row for 33 years and described himself as "stuck."
Just as there is general agreement on the problems that beset the row, there is also a shared sense that every improvement could make a difference, especially if it increases the number of people who live or work nearby.
Redevelopment could help
City officials hope that the eventual redevelopment of both the empty Baltimore Life building in the 900 block of Howard St. and a nearby vacant apartment building on Park Avenue might breathe some life into the area.
Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., said he has spoken with hospital officials about presenting a "friendlier face" toward Howard Street instead of a forbidding brick wall.
Dubey, the former president of the neighborhood dealers association, says some ideas are in the works, such as lighting a nearby church spire and coordinating security efforts with Maryland General. He also said that two or three new dealers are expected to move into an empty storefront, the Antique Galleria, next month.
The new head of the Antique Row association, Thelma Hilger, owner of the Antique Treasury, said her top priority is to do more "matchmaking to fill up some of the empty stores" by contacting several dealers near Baltimore.
She also said it is crucial to get the dealers to agree to keep regular hours, because many shoppers are unpleasantly surprised to see stores closed when they visit. Hilger and Nancy Duggan, who has owned a silver shop for 20 years, described a "snowball effect" of some discouraged owners failing to keep regular posted hours. They, along with Dubey, Mack and Judd, are among the best-established and respected dealers on the row, with elegant pieces on display. All say they are doing fine and have no plans to leave the place Dubey affectionately calls "our little corner of the world."
But, they say they rely on longtime clients and interior decorators, some in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Washington, and keep in regular touch with them by telephone. Dubey also occasionally helps to decorate movie sets, such as the one for "Washington Square," which was filmed in the city's Union Square.
The flip side of that is that, unlike Lauzon, their bread and butter is not foot traffic. "If we had to depend on Baltimore alone, we'd be in trouble," said Hilger.
"The bottom line," Dubey said, "is we've got to get the street back to where it was."
Pub Date: 2/15/98