Steve Appel loved retail. He loved having his own business and the door open, sometimes late at night, so customers could check out the cool furnishings he sold. Starting in the 1980s, when he was 20-something, Appel had 33 years in retail. These days, at age 59, he gets melancholy about how it all went away. Someone might say, “You had a good run, Steve,” and he nods agreement the way a mourner nods when they hear someone’s awkward but sincere attempt to console.
Appel was co-owner of Nouveau Home and Interior Design, selling art deco, ‘50s and avant-garde contemporary furnishings, and wall art to Baltimore homeowners and apartment dwellers. He and his partner, Lee Whitehead, had a successful store in Mount Vernon for several years before they moved to Canton, to Belvedere Square and then back to Mount Vernon with a brief stop at a location in Harbor East.
The last location, near City Cafe on Eager Street, proved to be stellar. “We had a much smaller retail footprint with a professional design studio,” Appel told me. “We thought we had it made. We opened in March of 2015, and it was so busy. I stayed until 11 most evenings waiting on the City Cafe crowd. It was, as a retailer, one of the most incredible highs I ever had, being so busy I didn’t want to close.”
But only a few weeks later, Freddie Gray died from injuries sustained in police custody. Protests followed, then rioting broke out in West Baltimore on the day of Gray’s funeral. Businesses were vandalized, including some in Mount Vernon. “People came by the store telling us that we would be robbed and looted and we needed to leave,” Appel says. “But I stayed there overnight to make sure the store was OK. The Baltimore police were a tremendous help. From there, we had to rebuild the business. It was tough, and we never quite regained that level of sales.”
In 2019, Appel quietly closed Nouveau, and while he’s found other work since — he’s now in real estate with Berkshire Hathaway in Canton — he’s still in mourning, not only for Nouveau but for the many men and women who loved and lost retail establishments in recent years. A mix of factors hit them within a short frame — the unrest of 2015 followed by a long surge of violent crime in Baltimore, the growth of e-commerce and competition from national chains, then the coronavirus outbreak.
“I have a hard time watching the retail and restaurant community come and go over the years,” Appel says. “So many of us signed our homes or our parents’ homes over to the bank for a chance to succeed at the American dream. So many of us have worked so hard. … I don’t need a monument to myself or Nouveau, but like so many other stores and restaurants, like [now closed] City Cafe, that swam upstream, did we matter?”
A lot of people — store owners as well as customers — have said goodbye to local retail in recent years, and the farewells started well before the pandemic.
In 2019, major chains shut down more than 9,300 stores across the U.S., according to data from Coresight Research, a firm that tracks retail around the world. Another 12,000 stores closed in 2020, according to a tally by CoStar Group, a commercial real estate firm.
There have been more closings this year. In Baltimore, some of the happiest little stores around the city went dark, and the remaining tenants in The Gallery at Harborplace have been told to vacate the premises by year’s end.
The effects of online shopping have been seismic, and the pandemic accelerated cyber sales. The data vary, depending on the research source, but e-commerce reached new heights in 2020. It’s not yet the monster that ate retail America, but could be headed there. E-commerce accounted for about 13% of U.S. retail sales in the second quarter of this year, according to Statista, the market and consumer research company. Statista expects worldwide e-retail to reach 21.8% of all sales in just the next three years.
Every time I pass a shuttered store, I wonder about the future of local retail. A favorite hardware store might survive, a dress shop or independent jewelry store might still be there when you need it, and your neighborhood liquor store will probably never go out of business. But, given the growth of e-commerce, there’s a tendency to predict the complete demise of brick-and-mortar stores. That’s not going to happen for a while, if at all, but clearly local shop owners will continue to face huge competition from the e-retail marketplace.
Baltimore economic development officials are looking to do more to help small businesses get established and grow here, and that’s long overdue. Promoting stores in the city as well as on main streets in surrounding counties would be a great service to the retailers, the regional economy and our sense of place. Getting that idea in shoppers’ heads — that you can buy a fishing rod, ukulele, book or box of candy at a store down the street or across town — is tough and getting tougher. But it’s essential if local retail, restaurants and other businesses are to thrive again.
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“If we don’t try,” says Steve Appel, “if we don’t figure this out, retail of any quality will be extinct. I can’t bear to see that happen.”