On the Avenue, a pink and purple purse store

THE BALTIMORE SUN

City workers are beautifying Hampden's happening 36th Street, and, we know, it is quite an inconvenience. But these days, there's a new reason to brave the Avenue's torn-up sidewalks and traffic jams.

Bag ladies.

Not the kind you're thinking of. These women are experts at bags - buying and selling them.

In a pretty pink-and-purple, sub-street-level shop, Emily Levitas and Linda Segal have opened Gotta Have Bags, a boutique specializing in handbags of all shapes, sizes and temperaments.

The shop is new, but Levitas and Segal are no novices. These ladies know retail, and they also know Baltimore.

Born and raised here, and best friends for 40 years, the two women have been selling handbags, as well as clothing and other accessories, in various jobs for more than a century - if you combine their years of retail experience.

At age 14, Levitas started as a salesgirl at a lingerie and handbag shop on Charles Street. She eventually opened her own discount stores, one here on Falls Road, and one in Boston. When those closed, she settled in as a buyer for a local upscale handbag store, which she declines to name. That store shut down in June.

Segal, who was known for 24 years as one of Baltimore's best tour guides, was a local retailing pioneer. In 1965, she opened the Village Set, one of the original stores at the Village of Cross Keys.

As their careers wound down, Levitas, 68, and Segal, 66, found themselves too stylish and too full of energy for rocking chairs, charity lunches or ugly old-lady pocketbooks.

"When Linda asked me if I would like to go into business together, I said, 'What took you so long to ask me?'" Levitas, of Mount Washington, recalls.

There was little discussion about what they would sell - handbags - and even less discussion about where they'd set up shop: Hampden.

"It was the only place that was going to be fun, that was going to open up a whole new market for us," says Segal, who lives in Baltimore, near Pikesville, "and that there was a need for it."

On a hot day in July, while walking the Avenue, they discovered an old basement shop that hadn't been publicly used in four decades. They sloshed through pools of moldy water and peered with flashlights through the cobwebs at old pipes and leaky windows.

"It was a dump," Levitas says.

"We looked at each other and said together, 'We'll take it,'" Segal says.

Two months later, the "dump" was transformed into the pink-and-purple shop at 846 36th St. It is a reflection of its lively owners.

"Our landlord calls us the Golden Girls," Segal says. "I don't know if it's because we're in our golden years, or because we're sparkly."

Segal and Levitas do sparkle. Their eyes twinkle when they laugh (which is all the time), and shine mischievously when they joke and tease and finish each other's sentences (also, all the time).

"I think we buy very differently than other stores," Levitas says. "Everything we buy is hand-picked. One of this and one of that."

"I don't think we're afraid to take chances," says Segal.

That's why, besides elegant evening bags and prissy, proper purses, you'll find one of the most diverse and fun selection of handbags in Baltimore at their store.

Levitas calls their selection - which ranges in price from $12 to $350 - young, bright and "kicky."

Shiny metallic bags, colorful scrunched bags. Small bags, big bags. Bags shaped like bows or flowers or nail-polish bottles. Pastel straw bags. Hobos, clutches, backpack-style bags. Boxy, plastic-looking bags with big holes. Faux fur bags, bags with Pucci-style swirls. Leather with buckles, vinyl with beads. Hand-sewn, hand-painted. Flirty, fabulous and seriously foxy.

The women travel to New York regularly to shop the showrooms of quality purse sellers. They go with their gut instincts. And they usually agree on every bag they bring back home.

Occasionally, though, one just loves, loves, loves a bag, and the other one just hates it.

When that happens, Levitas says, diplomacy steps in: "We agree to disagree," she says. "If one of us disagrees this time, then we'll just make it up the next time."

One mauve metallic-y bag with psychedelic circles was a Levitas favorite, but Segal wasn't sure.

So they discussed it, and ended up buying two, in different styles. Only one is left.

One thing both women share: a common idea about what is high-quality, fashionable and unique and what will sell in Baltimore.

They don't sell knock-offs or overpriced, big-name designers.

When salespeople say, "'This is a hot item. This is a big seller,' it doesn't mean anything to us, because this isn't New York," Segal says.

For instance, the huge, expensive carryalls that are ubiquitous in Manhattan - toting women's bottled water, gym clothes, magazines and Blackberrys - won't work here, Segal says.

"Women here don't walk the streets the way women in New York do. We get in our cars and go," she says.

But things are changing in Baltimore, both acknowledge. Women are demanding better fashion. They want more color.

"The country is going through a handbag mania. No longer do people only have their black [bag] and their brown [bag]," Segal says. "And we have a very diverse market here."

The women have found that many frequent Hampden shoppers are vegans - and won't carry handbags made of leather.

So Levitas and Segal search high and low for a variety of bags made of quality non-leather materials.

"The bags we have in the store, no one in Baltimore is going to have," Levitas says.

"We're trying to create something that's fun ... " Segal says.

" ... And open," says Levitas.

"Every day's an adventure," says Segal.

And another sale.

Since the store's opening , the women have sold everything they started with, and have restocked with new merchandise over and over.

Customers come from Ellicott City, Monkton, Rising Sun.

"I'm a big fan," says Colleen Shelton, owner of Heavens to Betsy, the shop upstairs. "Their bags are wonderful."

Working two staircases away from the bag ladies has been somewhat of a financial hazard for Shelton. Since the store opened, she's already bought two bags. Her husband bought one for her for Christmas. And Shelton's sister meandered in one day and bought a bag, too.

Segal and Levitas already have learned many customers' tastes. Shelton, for example, loves old-fashioned, hand-sewn bags.

"She really likes antiques," Levitas says.

Half a beat later, both Levitas and Segal say together: "That's why she likes us!"

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