Today, Moses Robbins faces a most unpleasant task. After selling clothes in Georgetown for more than 14 years, he will begin posting notices that he is closing his Georgetown Cotton & Co. shop on Wisconsin Avenue & O Street NW.
Although Robbins will continue to use the Georgetown name for his two other shops in the metropolitan area, he has reached the unhappy conclusion that it is no longer profitable for him to run a shop in Georgetown -- a highly sought-after retail location for the past two decades.
It's not that the rents are high, he said last week. Rather, he complained, the stores on Wisconsin Avenue now lack the diversity and excitement they once had. They don't draw enough shoppers into his store to make it a vibrant, healthy business.
"It's a strain to give up my first place, but I don't have faith in the long term," Robbins said. Georgetown "is not a core shopping place anymore."
Robbins is not alone. David's Village Shop -- which has operated at Wisconsin Avenue and N Street for 22 years -- also plans to close its doors within the year. "We have not been happy with business in Georgetown for the past two to three years," said Philip Greenberg, executive vice president and general operations manager of David's.
"While the rest of our business [at six other shops around town] has been holding its own or going up, in Georgetown, business has been turning down about 20 percent this year," Greenberg said. "The local little stores are not there any longer. There are more restaurants and bars than retail clothing [outlets], and that's not enough draw on the Wisconsin Avenue side to draw people up to us," he added. So David's will close its Georgetown doors sometime between now and July, when its lease expires.
"There's obviously a very bad climate on Wisconsin Avenue," said another longtime Georgetown retailer who asked not to be named. "Frankly, the street has become disreputable, in my opinion. It once had a lot of character and charm and pizzazz. Now, it's pretty awful -- seedy looking, with an overabundance of shoe stores -- more than there are on F Street between 7th and 14th streets , and God knows there are more shoe stores there than anywhere else in the world. "Tough Times for Georgetown
By almost all accounts, times have changed significantly for Georgetown, once the hub of boutique retailing in Washington.
"Ten, fifteen years ago, there was almost no competition for shoppers," noted David Roffman, publisher of The Georgetowner newspaper. "People came to Georgetown to shop and put up with the hassles of little-to-no parking" because much of what Georgetown had couldn't be found elsewhere in the area, Roffman said.
Today, however, the suburban shopping malls -- with free parking -- offer much of the same merchandise now sold in Georgetown and many of the same stores. In fact, some of the malls' most thriving shops are stores that became successful thanks to their Georgetown image -- including Britches of Georgetowne and Georgetown Cotton.
With lack of parking an increasingly irksome problem in Georgetown, shoppers are turning more and more towards the malls. The shopping centers' restaurants, movie theaters and video-game parlors make shopping as much of an all-round experience as it is along the Wisconsin Avenue-M Street strip.
Meanwhile, many city residents and workers, thanks to the Metro, are opting these days to shop in the downtown retail core; that area has been revived by the restaurants and boutiques at The Shops at National Place and at the Old Post Office, and by new facilities at Garfinkel's, Woodward & Lothrop and Hecht's. Still other buyers can browse on Connecticut Avenue, where shops catering to professional men and women have been proliferating thanks largely to Metro's opening nine years ago, Roffman noted.
Georgetown, on the other hand, has been unable to take advantage of Metro because its residents rejected plans for a Metrorail station in their neighborhood.
"Parking is the key," said Richard Hindin, who as president of Britches of Georgetowne also is president of the Business and Professional Association of Georgetown. "There has been a gradual elimination of service parking in Georgetown."
A lot on N Street near Wisconsin disappeared a few years ago to make room for a new building. Today, another building is going up on what used to be a parking lot just above M Street on Wisconsin. One of the few remaining outdoor lots now lies at the bottom of M Street near the waterfront, and that lot is slated to be turned into a park.
Anticipating that event, retailers "have been talking to the city to develop a site primarily for parking," Hindin said. The Georgetown Park Effect
As much as shopping has changed outside of Georgetown, it has changed within the neighborhood as well. "I remember when Wisconsin Avenue was the center of shopping," recalled John Laytham, executive vice president of Clyde's restaurant. Wisconsin Avenue had all the boutiques, Laytham said. "M Street was its shabby sister with nothing south of it."
Today, however, thanks to the opening of the Georgetown Park mall on 32nd and M streets, the shopping pattern has changed. Some of the larger, more prominent stores formerly located on Wisconsin, such as Ann Taylor Inc., have moved to the mall, drawing traffic away from the main street. "The mall took a lot of the better shops all at once from Wisconsin Avenue," Laytham said. A Shift Toward M Street
In addition, new stores, seeking the largest amount of traffic, have been locating near Georgetown Park in the M Street area instead of on middle or upper Wisconsin. Many of the small clothing boutiques once on Wisconsin have closed -- replaced, in large part, by shoe stores or restaurants. Even the Christian Science Reading Room has been replaced by a shoe store, with shoes strewn on boxes on the floor.
"A lot of good shops have drifted toward M Street due to the Georgetown Park opening," Roffman said. On Wisconsin Avenue, "the mix isn't there. Many of the new stores are not fashionable or chic and cater to the younger people -- not a very stable type of business. Either that or they are changed into restaurants," Roffman said, noting that 110 Georgetown establishments now have liquor licenses -- more than double the number 10 years ago.
"If all you're offering is a place to go to dinner, you're drawing a nighttime crowd and have nothing for daytime people," Roffman said.
The change in traffic patterns has clearly been felt at some of Wisconsin Avenue's most notable stores.
"A little less traffic is coming up the block than it used to," said Wendy Ezrailson, buyer for the punk clothing store Commander Salamander, which is a few doors up from Georgetown Cotton. "The stores coming in are not that great -- not a good draw to business up the street," Ezrailson said.
Commander Salamander has seen a slight decline in sales while its sister store on M Street, Up Against the Wall, has seen an increase. Nonetheless, "I think Wisconsin Avenue is still great," Ezrailson added, noting that Commander Salamander has no intention of moving.
Similarly, the Mexican craft store The Phoenix a block north has "felt some drop-off, but not dramatic," said owner John Hays. "But I have confidence that we're well known and have enough different lines," that the store will continue to attract sufficient customers to Wisconsin Avenue.
"Georgetown will go up and down, but I have confidence in it," Hays added. "The side streets are as beautiful as they have ever been. The malls just don't offer the same thing as walking the streets of Georgetown. Nothing will change that," he said.
"I think these guys who are leaving are overstating the situation," complained Murray West, owner of the Barbara West clothing store at Wisconsin and P Street. "When Georgetown Park opened up, we had difficulties the first year, but then business came back the following year, and we did more than before Georgetown Park.
"The fact is our business is still good, and Georgetown is still a good place to have a business . . . . We have just renegotiated our lease for another 10 years so we are obviously putting money up to stay in Georgetown."
Considering the number of inquiries received about opening a new store in a just-emptied shop, Georgetown must still be a good place for retailers, said Frederika Rosinski, owner of Carl Rosinski Co., a leasing agent for several Georgetown properties. The Joffrey Shoe shop on O Street has been empty for only a week and she has received at least two dozen serious queries, many from retailers who already have stores in the area, Rosinski said. "It's like I'm advertising free money."
Business can't be all bad, given the number of new stores coming in, agreed Hindin, the president of Britches. Merry-Go-Round, the national chain that caters to the trendiest teenagers, recently opened a new shop on Wisconsin below N Street. Banana Republic, which features expensive natural-fiber clothing with a jungle-safari theme, plans to open a new store on the southwest corner of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street this fall. Meanwhile, The Gap, with a revamped decor and different merchandise, will take the place of David's Village Shop when it closes. 'Another Sleepy Mall'? ----
But that mix bothers Robbins of Georgetown Cotton.
"Georgetown will eventually become another sleepy mall," he said, "with the successful stores being the chains." Absent will be the one-of-a-kind boutiques that made Georgetown special -- and famous -- in the first place. "It will turn into something sedate, without individual style -- so that eventually there will no longer be a reason to come shopping here."
Robbins, not normally a seeker of publicity, said he decided to speak out now because "I'm interested with what's happening in Georgetown. I've been here for so damn long. I've always imagined I would have a shop here."
He started out in 1971 with the Old Mexico Shop, selling Mexican and Indian clothing in a small space adjacent to his Georgetown Cotton store, which came along four years later. The Old Mexico Shop was closed six years ago, "after styles changed and people became less casual," he said.
Robbins said he decided to close his current Georgetown shop (while keeping open the Tysons Corner and Connecticut Avenue Georgetown Cotton stores) a few months ago after he noticed that jewelry sales in the Georgetown unit were declining -- against the trend.
"I couldn't sell gold chains here in comparison with other units. And even though Georgetown is supposed to be the fashion center, I sold more fashion earrings in my Connecticut Avenue store." (The Georgetown store's full-time workers will be transferred to Connecticut Avenue.)
The Georgetown store, he said, is still profitable -- but just barely. "This year will be break-even," he said. And that's not sufficient for Robbins, whose chain takes in about $3 million in revenue a year. Robbins declined to disclose profit figures, other than to say, "yes, there are" profits.
"It's a lot of work for a small businessman to concentrate on something that just breaks even when I could be spending my time developing something else," he said. As a result, he decided not to renew his lease when it expired.
Robbins' last day is Oct. 31. He plans to throw a huge and happy Halloween party to say goodbye to the neighborhood that gave him his start.