Store flies high on banner sales


The giant flag draped over the Pentagon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks came from an Ellicott City store, Flags Etc. Gifts.

The store, in business about 15 years, sells flags from all 50 states and most countries, as well as historical flags, such as the famous "Don't Tread on Me" flag showing a coiled rattlesnake, which was flown during the American Revolution.

The store also sells decorative banners and gift items, including jewelry, handbags and scented candles.

But the American flag is by far its top seller, said Fritz Lages, who owns the store with his wife, Betty. That was particularly true after Sept. 11, he said, when, for days, people waited in line to buy them.

"It was a madhouse," he recalled. "I don't know if we sold anything else at that time."

Throughout the nation, stores quickly ran out of American flags, and the backlog for manufacturers was several months. But Fritz and his wife, were able to get a shipment of 2,700 American flags, which were quickly snapped up.

As July 4 approaches, flags remain in demand. The store stocks plenty of options, ranging from a $3 desk flag to one measuring 30 feet by 60 feet - the size of the one at the Pentagon - which sells for $2,700. The stripes alone are 3 feet high on that flag, Fritz Lages said.

Though the giant flags must be ordered, a variety of flags are kept in stock. Maryland state flags are among the top sellers, as are Irish flags. There also are flags representing Maryland counties, flags representing various religions, and every branch of the military.

Customers concerned about the correct way to retire an American flag can bring their old flags to the store. They will be donated to Boy Scouts or Veterans of Foreign War, who will burn them in an appropriate manner, Fritz Lages said.

Margot Snyder, who lives in Columbia and recently graduated from Seton Keough High School in Baltimore, said she came to the store to shop one day and liked it so much she asked for a job. Working at Flags Etc. Gifts has been a great experience, said Snyder, who is off to Drexel University in Philadelphia this fall.

"A lot of interesting people have come in," she said. She has met people who have family members in Iraq, she said, as well as "regulars that just want flags for their house."

Betty Lages got the idea for the business about 15 years ago, when the couple's daughter, Amelia, was at the University of Richmond, in Virginia. While visiting Amelia, Betty saw some decorative flags that she found attractive. But when she returned to Howard County, she could not find a place to buy them, Fritz Lages said.

As it happens, Richmond is considered something of an epicenter for decorative flags, Fritz Lages said. A company called Festival Flags, based in Richmond, is widely credited with creating the decorative banner concept when it opened in 1971.

Betty Lages decided to open a flag store in Howard County, and the couple opened Flags Etc., which sold flags, banners, kites, wind socks and chimes - basically anything that moved in the wind. "It just started growing," Fritz Lages said.

Over time, the couple began adding items. Jewelry, including Italian charm bracelets from Zoppini and Chamilia, have been popular, Fritz Lages said, as have denim totes called Bootie Bags, which sell for $90 to $120. Soy-based Beanpod Candles are available in scents including carrot cake, mint julep and ocean mist.

The quality of decorative banners has improved in recent years, said Lages, and prices range from a low of about $12 to a high of about $150, depending on the techniques and materials used.

To reflect the growing inventory, about five years ago the store's name was changed from Flags Etc. to Flags Etc. Gifts, Fritz Lages said. Though the store is now smaller, the couple's vision remains as large as ever.

"In traditional Betty way, she doesn't go little with anything," Fritz Lages said.

On May 1, the store moved from a location on U.S. 40 to its current home, across from the Chatham Station shopping center. Fritz Lages said the new location has better parking and is easier to find.

But moving from a space that exceeded 4,000 square feet to one that is about 1,500 square feet has meant that fewer flags are on display.

"Before, we would have flags out for every season," Fritz Lages said.

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