"Is Clark's gone yet?" asked Gladys Walker as she opened the front door and peered into the empty shop on Colesville Road where she had bought flowers for two decades.
It was. After 44 years, Clark's Flowers, oldest of the few remaining independent stores in downtown Silver Spring, had moved to New Hampshire Avenue and Randolph Road, in part to follow its customers north.
In recent years, as high-rise development and Metro-oriented construction began to change the commercial center of Silver Spring, the long, narrow shop was one of the few left from the suburb's quieter, pre-World War II days.
"I'm so disappointed," said Walker, who had always walked from her nearby home to the shop at 8648 Colesville Rd. "I've been getting flowers here for years."
"You can still call us and order your flowers," said owner Susann Mauck, who was attending to last-minute details.
"I'm gonna miss you," Walker said.
Clark's and several other small independent stores set up business around the intersection of Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road in the late 1930s and early 1940s. It was a time when Silver Spring was coming into its own as a suburb, largely through the development efforts of the late Col. E. Brooke Lee.
Mark Walston, a historian with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, said that prior to the late '30s, downtown Silver Spring was made up mostly of hardware and feed stores near the railroad crossing on Georgia Avenue.
The smaller shops and their personalized way of doing business were unchanged through World War II, but most of the businesses "were killed when the big department stores came in," Walston said. In the late 1940s, Hecht's, Sears Roebuck and J.C. Penney stores opened in the area.
Silver Spring's commercial growth parallels that of Bethesda and Takoma Park, Walston said. Small independent shops in all three areas were hurt by the advent of regional shopping centers, beginning with the opening of Wheaton Plaza in 1954, he said.
Clark's 44-year survival is "unique," Walston said. "Most of those independent shops don't have that kind of longevity, especially in the same location."
Though some existing Silver Spring businesses might have started earlier than Clark's -- including The Silver Theater, which opened in 1939, or the Suburban Bank branch opened in 1925, they were parts of chain operations, not independently run, Walston said.
"I've been distressed about their closing," said Irene Hartig, a resident of Silver Spring for 43 years who can remember when Clark's was one of many small shops in the downtown. From the mid-1940s through 1969, when her family did not have a car, she did her shopping on foot, she said. It was a 25-cent cab ride home, and her husband could walk to the Baltimore & Ohio railroad station on Georgia Avenue to catch a train downtown to work.
Now, she said, "We go the shopping malls more because we can park free and go to a variety of stores."
Mauck says growth in telephone sales have helped Clark's survive amid the decline of other small shops. What was once largely a walk-in operation now gets 90 percent of it orders by phone, she said.
Mauck also credits the loyalty of her customers, nearly half of whom have patronized the shop for 30 years, she said.
Mauck said she and her parents, who are co-owners, did not consider moving the business from downtown until now, "because everybody expected Silver Spring to take off -- and it did grow, but not for the small businesses."
She said they have been increasingly frustrated with frequent changes in landlords, lack of nearby parking and air-conditioning for the store, and neighborhood crime.
The unrenovated shop still has its original refrigerated flower case and neon sign.
They were there when Mauck's parents, Howard and Bettye Mauck, now both 75 years old and still working in the business, bought the store in 1956 from Adele Clark, widow of the original owner, Kenneth Clark.
Howard and Bettye Mauck met in the 1930s when they both worked for Washington florist Zachariah Blackistone, he as a flower buyer and she as manager of Blackistone's Statler Hilton Hotel flower shop. Howard Mauck was working for a local flower wholesaler when he met Kenneth Clark and the two couples became friends.
Bettye Mauck remembers the days when local businesses "were like a big family," hanging Christmas lights and flagson Flag Day on Colesville Road. Her neighbors in the downtown area included Yeager's Dress Shop, Sheer's Menswear, Louis' Restaurant, H. L. Green's dime store and Fredland's Jewelers.
Howard Mauck, standing in his new store at New Hampshire and Randolph -- one of five shops in a brand new, low brick building, each with a similar red-and-white sign -- said his old customers have moved away and the younger people are moving further out in suburban Maryland, "so why should I be all the way down in Silver Spring?"
"I think we outlived our good down there," he added.
Following the 1978 opening of the Silver Spring Metro station, the 8600 and 8700 blocks of Colesville Road -- the location of Clark's, The Silver Theater and the Silver Spring Shopping Center -- have been the focus of preservationists who want to save the older buildings and real estate developers who want to capitalize on prime land located near the Metro. County plans call for dense development in the area.
A few doors away from Clark's old home, construction of the 11-story Lee Plaza, a 149,000-square-foot office and retail complex, has begun where a Hahn's shoe store and Lerner's dress shop once stood.
"The 8600 block is the only remaining commercial street in Montgomery County that conveys the sense of shopping of the '40s and '50s," said Bobbi Hahn, director of the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission.
The commission recently lobbied the county planning board for a protective historic district designation for the entire 20-store 8600 block, a 10-store area in the 8700 block and the Silver Spring Shopping Center.
In May, the planning board voted to include the area in the Montgomery County Locational Atlas and Index of Historic Sites, which allows for review when development plans are proposed but falls short of the permanent protection the historic commission was seeking.