Checking in with the folks on that oft-cited Main Street

The Baltimore Sun

Under a crisp and clear sky, their street finally restored after nearly two years of noise, dust and construction, the shopkeepers of Bel Air's Main Street seemed pretty happy Friday afternoon. Baristas steamed espresso drinks at Shamrock Coffee, friends dropped in to check out the just-opened Lavalier jewelry store, and customers and sales reps were downright festive in the newly expanded and very pink digs of the Tiger Lily boutique.

What economic crisis?

The woes of Wall Street, and the grim pronouncements made on Capitol Hill to push through the $700 billion bailout, seemed very far away indeed.

"I just tripled my space," said Toni McCracken, whose Tiger Lily shop was celebrating its grand reopening in a bigger location. "We're doing fine."

But talk to McCracken's accountant, and you'll get - as you tend to get from accountants - a less sunny view of the economic horizon. Alan McCracken, husband and accountant both, got a firsthand view in August of how Main Street intersects with Wall Street.

"We had approached our bank for additional financing to help with the move," he said, referring to the store's expansion, "and we were turned down."

Luckily, the couple had an existing line of credit with the bank to tap into and opened in time for the coming holiday - and shopping - season. Now he's waiting to see if the bailout saves both streets.

"We have been doing well, and I would say to this point in time, we have not noticed a significant downturn," he said. "That's not to say that we necessarily won't see one down the road."

I had gone to Main Street on Friday after hearing politicians talk so much about it from afar all week. Whether it was on Capitol Hill as lawmakers sought to present the bailout as not just for Wall Street, or at Thursday night's vice presidential debate, Main Street was on everyone's lips. Republican Sarah Palin, in particular, kept referring to it as a way of establishing her gosh-darn, dad-gummit, jest-folks creds - laying it on rather thickly, I thought.

"It's Main Street, it's not the backwoods," said Karen Jacobs, who - with her mother, Tina Lewis - owns the Tiny Toes children's boutique in Bel Air.

While Palin got it backward at one point - "It's a toxic mess, really, on Main Street that's affecting Wall Street," she said, when I think she meant it the other way around - the message was that the streets are inextricably connected.

On Bel Air's Main Street, they're not so sure. Several shopowners said they're mostly self-financed, using their own or their families' savings, and don't stock lots of inventory, so the credit crunch hasn't proved much of a hurdle.

"People of our size run our businesses like we run our families: Don't buy it if you can't pay for it," said Maryterese Streett, who with her husband owns the Boyd and Fulford pharmacy, which has been around since 1892.

Like many in this largely Republican area, she's no fan of what she considers government intrusion - such as the bailout. She'll point to the Wachovia across the street from her store as proof - Citibank initially was set to buy Wachovia Corp.'s banking operations with the government's help, but then Wells Fargo swooped in with a deal that didn't require that assistance.

"On Main Street, we're very suspicious of when the government says it's here to help you," Streett says.

Still, at 78, she realizes she can't totally divorce herself from Wall Street forces, particularly if she ever gets around to retiring and needs to live on her investments.

"You have to provide your own retirement," she said. "I don't want to tell you how much we lost in the stock market lately."

For now, though, it's the local rather than the national or global economic picture that looms large: After putting up with the nearly $9 million reconstruction project that tore up the pavement and drove away some customers, the shopkeepers feel they've earned the benefits that the prettied-up streetscape should bring. Now that the rubble is gone, it's a charming, strollable street, with sidewalk cafes, the kind of independent stores you don't find in malls and a welcoming atmosphere. In short, everything that makes "Main Street" such an evocative concept.

"We do depend a lot on each other," Jacobs said of her business community. "There's a lot of cooperation. You can see everyone help each other out."

Now the economy just has to start cooperating.

"Just for us, where we get our milk, where we get our bakery needs, all that has gone up," says Bridget Mitchell, who with her husband owns Shamrock Coffee. "But we can't keep raising our prices.

"We do walk that fine line."

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