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Thriving in Hagerstown

Shops overcoming obstacles in business district

Shops overcoming obstacles in business district

March 02, 2004|by TAMELA BAKER

Editor's note: This is one in a series of occasional stories about Hagerstown's downtown.

tammyb@herald-mail.com

Hoffman's Clothiers has been catering to the well-dressed Hagerstonian since 1919.

Jim Baker, the store's current owner, loves being a haberdasher, loves his staff and loves being downtown - which is just as well, since he doesn't plan to leave his North Potomac Street location.

In a dated business district that has struggled to remain viable in an era of shopping malls and strip development, Hoffman's is one of several retailers that have thrived despite trends that have taken shoppers away from the city's inner core.

So what's the secret?

"Part of the reason is I love what I do," Baker said. "And we offer the finest quality money can buy, commensurate with the price."

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Further south on Hoffman's block, Bikle's Ski & Outdoor Shop has been selling skis and related supplies since the early 1960s - and before that, Bikle's Shoes had operated since 1912.

Co-owner Barbara Tritle sums up the shop's success with one word: service.

"When you give incredible service, when you treat people like they want to be treated, when you provide a quality product with good value, people will come," she said.

Over on the corner of Jonathan and Franklin streets, Frank Fearnow Jr. has run Ingram's Mens Shop since his father, Frank Sr., retired more than 20 years ago. The shop was opened by Fearnow's uncle, Harry Layton Ingram, in 1930. Frank Sr., now 87, still comes in sometimes, Fearnow said.

Fearnow said he is convinced that the longevity of the family business is a combination of quality, price and service.

"I guess the biggest thing is that we have really good quality at a reasonable price," Fearnow said. "And we have a good rapport with our customers; they come in here and they see people they know. They trust us. We carry things you're not gonna find at department stores.

"Downtown has a lot of problems, but I don't really have any problems."

Overcoming obstacles

That's not to say doing business downtown has always been easy, even for longtime downtown merchants.

"The most difficult thing is to get people down here," Baker said. "We've been blessed with a group of people who've been doing business with us for years. We enjoy the opportunity to serve them; we think of them as friends."

For these customers, he said, Hoffman's is a destination.

"It's almost like going to your cousin's house," Baker said.

But it's not always an easy destination to reach.

"It would be easier if the streets hadn't been so torn up and somebody besides God knew how to clear the snow and ice," Baker conceded.

A few doors up Potomac Street from Hoffman's, Brenda Goodwyn has operated Figurehead II for nearly six years. During that time, she said, "I've hit a lot of obstacles."

From the start, street construction projects that went on for more than two years resulted in "people not being able to get to my store," she said.

At about the same time Goodwyn's store opened, Prime Outlets and the new wing at Valley Mall opened, too. The economic slump that followed the 2001 terrorist attacks didn't help, she said. Nor did last year's winter weather - nor this year's, for that matter.

"In January and February, I'm literally closed," Goodwyn said. "People are afraid of slipping. Winter months are hard here."

But she's still there.

"What has saved me has been the unique style of my clothes," Goodwyn said. "I don't compete" with shops at the mall or the outlets. "I have a lot of art-wear" and a wide range of sizes and styles, she said.

"And marketing myself has helped me survive."

Downtown advantages

Beyond those things, Goodwyn said she believes her customers come back because of the personal service she provides.

"Women like the special attention they get in a boutique store," she said. "I think ladies get overwhelmed in large department stores."

Service, like free alterations, has been a mainstay at Ingram's, Fearnow said. He said he's done a lot of marketing, as well.

"We spend a lot on advertising," he said. "Once we get 'em in the door, they come back."

The family has tried to make shopping at Ingram's convenient, too.

"Dad saw the insight into parking downtown and bought the Royal Bar - I think it was also known as the 'Bloody Bucket' - and did the town a favor and leveled it in 1967," Fearnow said. "That became our parking lot."

These stores have a large local clientele - Baker and Goodwyn estimate that between 70 percent and 75 percent of their customers are from Washington County - but also draw from Frederick, Md., Waynesboro and Chambersburg in Pennsylvania and from West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle.

Bikle's draws customers from throughout the region, Tritle said.

"Because of that, we have a central location," she said.

Perceptions and reality

Baker said he has operated Hoffman's for 20 years, having purchased the business and the building from Paul Hoffman.

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