Small Businesses Outside of Downtown Frederick Face Their Own Challenges
Back-to-school is one of the busiest times of the year for Lucy’s Consignment Shop in Mount Pleasant. In the days leading up to backpacks and buses, you’ll find Lucy’s parking lot full and the store filled with those looking through thousands of items of gently used children’s clothing, toys and baby necessities.
Located less than 10 minutes north of Frederick, off of Md. 26, Lucy’s isn’t in a heavily commercialized area. You’ll find a gas station, a liquor store and a place for home improvements within walking distance of the shop, but other than that, it’s pretty much just houses and views of the country.
“Lucy’s customers are good stewards of their time and their money,” says owner Ginny Baird. “It is so easy to park and get into our store, check our inventory for the sizes you need and be on your way. Plus, unlike a retail store that carries just one brand, Lucy’s offers huge brand selections in just one location. If you are shopping in a traditional way, you’d have to visit 10 stores to see 10 brands. Here, we have them all under one roof and our inventory is changing every day, all day long, six days a week.”
Although Frederick, particularly Downtown, is considered as the place for shopping in the county, consumers are also making paths to small businesses outside city limits. Frederick County has five Maryland Main Street-designated towns and cities (Thurmont, Brunswick, Middletown, Mount Airy and Downtown Frederick), which is the largest number in the state for the comprehensive revitalization program that started in 1998.
“While we recognize and appreciate the center of commerce that exists in the City of Frederick, Frederick County has unique and thriving downtown areas where retail businesses can and do thrive beyond the city limits,” says Sandy Wagerman, a business development analyst with the Frederick County Office of Economic Development. “Main Street organizations promote and market their commercial districts to visitors, residents and potential investors. … Frederick County also has unique retail shopping areas that are not designated Main Streets, but offer shopping experiences with beautiful architecture, history and character, such as in the downtown areas of New Market and Emmitsburg. Local merchants and restauranteurs pride themselves on delivering personalized experiences to their visitors while offering distinctive products that can’t be found elsewhere.”
Nestled inside a century-old restored church building, Brunswick’s Beans in the Belfry features a warm, inviting atmosphere, while serving up an eclectic menu of both food and drink. Owner Melanie DiPasquale moved to Brunswick two years before she opened the business in 2004. “I noticed the downtown really had nothing going on and at first I was upset,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Oh, my God. There is nothing going on here. This is terrible.’ and then I was like, ‘Oh, my God. There is nothing going on here. That means we can decide what is going to go on. It was like an open door as far as the setting, claiming it almost. Giving it an identity.”
Patience has been a key to the business’s success. “When you have a new business, especially a food service business, some people are thinking [they are] going to be sitting at home after a year or two directing things from home, not doing any work themselves and have money just rolling in from nowhere, which is definitely not the reality of what happens,” DiPasquale says. “You have to be prepared for no profit to be made for—it could be a decade. Just being prepared for that and refusing to give up is a large part of that and having the resources to keep going when after a decade you still haven’t made a profit.”
It took about eight years for Beans to turn the corner. “You just have to be prepared and know as long as things are getting closer to breaking even and then eventually profit that you are headed in the right direction and just not to give up,” she says.
Being in a small town means employees may develop a rapport with regular customers. “One thing that I really like as an owner about being in a small town is the fact that I get to hire people and offer people quality employment without the need to go to another town,” she says. Many of DiPasquale’s employees live in Brunswick and have a minute commute to work. “To find quality employment right at home is huge for people,” she says. “That means they don’t need a car. They don’t need to factor in one hour a day for commuting. It’s right here for them. It’s a quality job. We treat our employees super well. We pay them super well and they in turn treat us super well.”
For businesses located outside heavily commercial, high foot-traffic areas, employees must work three times harder making quality products to bring in customers. “If you are in Brunswick, you better be gosh darn sure that your coffee is worth a 15 to 20 minute drive,” DiPasquale says. “You have to be that much better to gain a following and a core set of customers to keep you afloat. You have to be that much more accommodating; that much more friendly; that much more everything. You have to try a lot harder. You do have to offer something different because you have to make yourself a destination.”
Located off Jefferson Pike, the Jefferson Pastry Shoppe sells baked goods made daily including sinfully decadent eclairs, bread and pastries. “The customer base is just phenomenal the way they come and support the bakery,” says owner Gary Smith.
An article in a local newspaper telling about the sale of the shop in 2007 lead Smith and his late wife, Donna, to have conversation over breakfast about buying the existing business. “I jokingly said to her, ‘We ought to buy this,’ and she said I was crazy but then it turned around before breakfast was over. She was changing her mind,” he recalls. “The next thing I know she said she was going to set up an appointment to go look at it and wanted to know if I would go with her. … That’s what she loved to do. She was a very talented cake decorator.”
Donna, who always talked about how much she loved the employees and customers, died in February 2015 but the shop continues on in her memory. Smith is often surprised to hear all of the far places people travel from just to get one of their in-house-made donuts, kinklings or cakes.
Dean Kramer started Kramer’s Piano Shop 42 years ago at the age of 17. Initially located in Union Bridge, he bought the current store site in New Midway on Woodsboro Pike in 1978. With a hole in the roof, neighbors wanted the condemned building torn down. “We saw the potential of it,” he says. “I had to pick [a location] that we could afford and be on a main road.”
Dean, along with his wife, Lois, remodeled the store that now features four showrooms with pre-owned and new pianos, more than 8,500 music book selections, and five music studios dedicated to lessons on piano and guitar. Employees also travel across Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Virginia performing services such as piano tuning, moving and reconditioning. “We probably go out further than most businesses for service,” Kramer says.
Great word of mouth and a highly trained staff has brought many customers to the store, Kramer says. “They know when they come here they can trust us and they are going to get a good product.” Still, some people bristle at the idea of driving out to New Midway, about 20 minutes from Frederick. “That’s the challenge we face every day,” he says. “Trying to find ways to get our message out. Get who we are out. Today there is no question. People want convenience and that is a constant challenge for us to try to overcome. … If we can just get them here, that usually takes care of it.”
Susan Richter founded Charlotte’s Cottage Quilt Shop online five years ago. Named for her mother and granddaughter, the online site specializes in selling Civil War reproduction fabric. “People kept asking for a retail store so a spot came open [a year ago in July] and it was the right size and the right price and we decided to give it a try,” she says. The shop is “three minutes from my house and I like being in a small town.”
Located just off Woodsboro Pike in Walkersville, the shop also provides a way to offer customers a greater variety of quality fabrics including patterns by Moda, Di Ford and Kim Diehl. People come to the shop because “we have many brands of fabric that you cannot get unless you travel,” she says. “We are very happy people make the trip to see us. … Sometimes when you travel to the small towns you find a hidden gem.”