Georgetown antique shops face new challenges as business moves online


Michaela Keeling, co-owner of Georgetown antique shop Carling Nichols, which has been doing more of its business online. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Jeffrey MacMillan)

After five years in business, the French Apartment is closing its doors, the latest Georgetown antique shop to shutter in the face of dwindling demand.

Antique shop owners say the popularity of online shopping, coupled with rising rents and Georgetown’s increasingly younger residents, have made it difficult to generate business. Competition from national brands such as Restoration Hardware, BoConcept and Jonathan Adler hasn’t helped either.

“The entire block is just deathly quiet, and it’s getting worse,” said Kathleen McGarrah, owner of the French Apartment on Wisconsin Avenue NW. “Nobody walks in the door and buys anything anymore.”

Instead, many antique shop owners say more than half of their sales come from online customers in other parts of the world. High-end Web sites such as 1stdibs.com and Ruby Lane have made it possible to sell a $15,000 18th century dresser to a buyer in Argentina with the click of a mouse.

“The Internet has become a major contributor to our business,” said Michaela Keeling, co-owner of Carling Nichols. “Even when customers come into the store, many times they’ll say, ‘I saw this online.’”

Once home to dozens of antique shops, Georgetown’s demographics have shifted in recent years as more young professionals move into the neighborhood. The mix of retailers has changed, too. TJ Maxx and Home Goods opened in the neighborhood last year, as did Dr. Martens.

“The dominant sector is now 25-to-34-year-olds,” said Josh Hermias, economic development director for the Georgetown Business Improvement District. “And they’re not picking up $10,000 antique couches just yet.”

In 2012, there were more three times as many Georgetown-area households headed by 25- to 34-year-olds (roughly 5,700 homes) than by 45-to-54-year-olds (1,900), Hermias said.

Antique dealers have been particularly hard-hit, McGarrah said, adding that 40-somethings sustained her business for many years: They were settled enough to need nice furniture, but not so seasoned that their homes were fully-furnished.

“Those shoppers are gone,” McGarrah said, “and none of us are getting that new generation.”

A few doors down, Tom Vogt of Marston Luce echoed that sentiment: “It’s a hard climate,” he said. “Tastes change.”

McGarrah would not disclose revenue figures, but said that sales had been steadily declining.

“Every year, it’s progressively gone down,” she said. “None of us remembers what a profit is anymore.”

The French Apartment is closing at the end of this week. McGarrah said she’s not sure what she will do after that. Maybe she’ll set up online, maybe she’ll scrap the venture altogether.

“The entire business of retail has changed,” she said. “And if it’s hard now, think what it’ll be like in two years, or five years, from now?”

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section.
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