John Kelly's Washington

Shop owner overwhelmed by community support during hard times

"This is all that I have," Patches owner Dawn Spencer says of her store. "This is my everything." (John Kelly/the Washington Post)
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By John Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 27, 2010

For nine years, Dawn Spencer has owned a Silver Spring shop that sells greeting cards. She has followed the life passages of her customers through the cards they buy, cards neatly arranged under familiar headings: Birthday, Graduation, Wedding, Anniversary, Get Well Soon.

And when the worst happens, Sympathy.

That's a fate Dawn is hoping she can avoid. Her card and gift shop on New Hampshire Avenue in Colesville Center is called Patches. Battered by the weak economy, Patches is hurting.

"The snow is what really put me behind," Dawn said. From the first storm in December to when the last snow of February was cleared, Dawn's revenue dropped $26,000 from the previous year. She's so far behind on the rent that her landlord is talking about evicting her.

There are some who will say that Patches deserves its fate, that its closure would be the unfortunate, but inevitable, byproduct of the engine of capitalism. Survival of the fittest and all that.

But many of Dawn's customers don't agree. On Saturday, they threw a fundraising dinner for Patches. Jacqueline Sealey, a customer of Dawn's who owns a graphic design and printing company, organized it, sending out invitations that asked for support from Gold Level ($50) to Platinum Level ($750).

And in the way that a strip shopping center is a bit like a family, Dawn's fellow small-business owners chipped in, too. George Bourzikos at the Greek Village Restaurant discounted the space for the event and served up moussaka, baklava and more. The family that runs Colesville Beer & Wine donated champagne. Kelly's Limousine Service offered to ferry senior citizens who didn't want to drive after dark. About 70 people attended, dancing to an oldies band called Boomerang. (For $100, you could dance with Dawn.)

"The community just came together," Dawn said on Monday, still amazed at the outpouring of support. More than $7,000 was raised.

"The money goes straight to the landlord in order for me to stay here," she said. "I've got to keep my doors open."

Dawn said she has cut her expenses as much as she can. She's the store's only paid employee. She sold her jewelry. She sold her car.

"I'm a single woman, so it's all on me," she told me Monday. "This is all that I have. This is my everything."

A lot of strip shopping centers look as if the plague has swept through. "Space for Lease" signs are popping up like mushrooms after a spring rain.

Dawn ticked off the nearby stores that had shut in the past year: the frame shop, the dry cleaners, the Cup & Cone ice cream shop.

"That closed, I think, in October," she said.

Donna Beausoleil stopped in to buy a birthday card for her mother. She's a co-owner of Exit Realty Solutions, a few doors down from Patches. It's been hit by the economy, too. Nearly everything her firm earns these days goes to pay the rent.

"Thank God for alimony, that's all I can say," said Donna.

Dawn emigrated from Jamaica with her parents when she was 7. "They came to the United States with nothing," she said, "just that entrepreneurial drive to have your own business."

They ran a transport company in Baltimore that took senior citizens to their appointments. After college, Dawn spent 18 years working at a local formalwear company, outfitting everyone from bridegrooms to high school madrigal singers. When the owner of the company retired and the son took over, the vibe changed and she struck out on her own.

She picked the name Patches, she said, because the shop sells a patchwork of things (cards, stationery, Mylar balloons, cookbooks, wind chimes -- you can even get your keys cut) and because life itself is a patchwork of experiences.

Some of the patches in the quilt of life are sad, but many are happy.

On Saturday, despite the dire circumstances that brought people together, Dawn saw the happy side: "I saw what I lived for all my life -- being kind and being nice to people -- I saw it returned."

So, buy a card at Patches. Buy some wrapping paper or a balloon. Or think about the Patches in your neighborhood, the small business where the owner recognizes you, takes a few minutes to chat, thinks of you as more than just a customer.

You'll miss it when it's gone.

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