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Chesapeake Knife & Tool remains on cutting edge


Chesapeake Knife & Tool stores are like the Swiss Army knives that line their shelves: They are easily accessible, compact, and have a variety of toys and tools tucked in every corner.

That design has been a secret of success for the Columbia-based chain of 19 stores - one of the largest chains of specialty cutlery stores in the country - and it's the formula that founder Mel Herman hopes will propel the 23-year-old company forward.

Chesapeake Knife & Tool has grown for several years at a pace of nearly one store a year, but next year, if the economy stabilizes or improves, the company might add three or four new locations, Herman said.

That would be a big step for the company - which has sales of about $8 million a year - and a difficult one under current market conditions.

Revenue grew only slightly last year, Herman said, and only now are sales approaching what they were before the terrorist attacks last year. Herman said he expects flat revenue, and possibly a slight decrease in profit, this year because through past economic cycles, the stores' revenues have consistently followed the national economy, never rising quite as high or dipping quite as low.

But the accountant and former auditor said he will not shy away from the opportunity to open a store even in a poor economy.

"All we need is a mall with good traffic," Herman said. "Our products go to every demographic - women, middle age, the business executive. Nowhere can anybody find a selection of knives like we have."

Chesapeake Knife & Tool is certainly a destination for niche shoppers. The store carries cutting-edge products - $300 kitchen-knife sets, ornate $700 swords, $90 daggers. But the store also sells collectibles from popular artists such as Thomas Blackshear, which fits the store's Swiss Army knife formula: Pack a variety of small, pricey pieces into an 850- square-foot store at a thriving mall, and train friendly employees to handle questions about your niche.

That the chain has grown, stretching beyond Maryland into Washington, Virginia and Massachusetts, speaks to the store's broader appeal as a gift shop. About half its sales by volume are in men's pocketknives, Herman said. Gadgets - hi-tech flashlights, collectible statues, binoculars - also are popular.

"I would consider them among the largest and most reputable retailer of knives in the country. ... They're probably in the top 10 percent of retail operations in this country," said David D. Kowalski, communications coordinator for the American Knife and Tool Institute.

However, another industry observer from the National Independent Cutlery Association said he's concerned that the terrorist attacks last year could permanently affect knife retailers, especially those that carry more than kitchenware. Federal Aviation Administration restrictions on even seemingly harmless fingernail clippers and Swiss Army knives have prompted hesitation among some people about carrying the pocketknives they used to tuck away without a thought.

But Kowalski said he thinks stores such as Chesapeake that carry high-end knives could become more sought after: "People who carry knives are carrying smaller knives that look more like gentlemen's pens or [folding knives]. We have a lot of laws that relate to blade length on knives, and where those kind of laws exist, the trend is to mandate for smaller and smaller blade lengths."

Herman said he hopes the store will build upon its success in knives by adding another specialty. This month, the branch at Fair Oaks Shopping Center in Virginia reopened in a new, larger space to include Renaissance-style clothing catering to fair enthusiasts.

The move seemed a good fit, Herman said. The store sells "Glamdring," the sword carried by the wizard Gandalf in the movie Lord of the Rings, and it also sells clothing one might see in the movie. Herman said Chesapeake will test the concept because this is an area that could help the company grow and further develop a niche among shoppers on the East Coast. Most Renaissance clothiers sell by catalog, he said.

"If we develop the reputation as a place you can go and see and order or pick it up right there, we think we'll develop a trade," Herman said. "I don't know how many people are really into it. But when I first went into this business, everyone said I was out of my mind because there weren't enough people who liked the product. For 23 years, they were wrong."

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