But now, as the suburban centers approach their second anniversaries, Carytown merchants are relieved to find they've held their own.
"I hesitate to say there was no difference" in shopping patterns, says Frances Daniel, owner of Mrs. Marshall's Carytown Cafe and president of the Carytown Merchants Association. Some stores, particularly those that specialize in home furnishings and accessories, may have seen a slight decline in business because of mall competition, she says. But overall, the area's still attracting a steady stream of visitors.
"We've said this all along," Daniel says, "that for people who are looking for more unique opportunities, this is still the place to come."
Merchants are rediscovering Carytown, too. The few vacant spots on the eight-block strip have been claimed in a game of musical stores: Soak!, a former Carytown fixture that set up shop in Short Pump Town Center and Chesterfield Towne Center, is closing its Chesterfield location to move into the space now occupied by trendy clothing shop Lex's of Carytown. In turn, Lex's will move into the former House of Lighting. A new fourth! Thai restaurant (Carytowners love their curry) may be occupying the former Great Wraps location, Daniel says. Cookies by Design, a store that sells hand-decorated confections, opened at Cary Street and Crenshaw Avenue June 13.
Stewart Watkins, who opened The Yarn Lounge in March, says Carytown was the only location she considered for her shop because she knew it would distinguish her from other knitting stores in Richmond. "I feel like Carytown kind of attracted a more urban, art-inspired, younger crowd," Watkins says. Not to mention foot traffic. "We get a lot of this in the window," she says, cupping her hands over her brow.
The Yarn Lounge occupies the former space of vintage home-and-clothing store Urban Artifacts, which moved a few doors down when upscale clothing store St. Tropez scooted out to a Short Pump strip.
"When we saw it, we just jumped on it," says Didi Chisholm, co-owner of Urban Artifacts. Moving to the mall was never an option, she says. "No, no," Chisholm says in a slightly shocked tone. "That's not my . "
"Style?" interjects the counter clerk.
Trouble is, Carytown's continued viability means rents for the commercial spaces keep going up, and up, and up. "Oh, yeah," Daniel says. "It's a good thing and it's a bad thing."
Lease rates in Carytown average around $20 per square foot, says Brian Glass, senior vice president of real estate firm Grubb & Ellis/Harrison & Bates. Five years ago, he says, $15 would have been normal. Since then, some of the older retailers have retired, he says, and the area has become a bit more upscale and the Cary Court renovations have boosted the area's image.
Carytown is far from being as expensive as space at the two new malls, however. Rates there are closer to $40 to $50 per square foot, Glass says, because of extra charges for taxes, insurance, security and promotions.
Increasing rents signify the area's desirability but also may exclude new businesses from getting started in Carytown. Although some retailers own their own buildings, the majority lease. And many, like Daniel, are responsible for paying the annual property taxes to the city taxes that, like many residential property taxes, have risen sharply in recent years. The city's assessment of the property that houses Mrs. Marshall's, for instance, rose by $57,000, or nearly 25 percent, from January 2004 to January 2005.
Early next year, Tammy Rostov is moving her family's business, Rostov's Coffee & Tea, out of Carytown after 25 years. The rent went up, Rostov says, and she found that a mortgage on a Main Street retail condo would cost less than the monthly rent on Cary Street.
The parking lot at the new place helped persuade her to move, too, Rostov says. At her current location, "we have a hard time. We're really destination, and they have a hard time finding places to park, so they just don't come."
Daniel says she and the rest of the Carytown merchants are sorry to lose Rostov's, which began as Carytown Coffee & Tea in 1979. But she understands the pressures forcing Rostov to move.
"I don't mean to denigrate the [building] owners, because there are some wonderful owners who are very supportive of the organization," Daniel says, referring to the Carytown Merchants Association. Some landlords, like her own, Daniel says, "see the value of longevity" and restrain their rents to keep tenants longer.
What merchants fear, Daniel says, "is when you get to the place where these rents go so high, the only people who can afford them are the national companies." Rumors float perennially about chain stores coming to Carytown. "Every time a space comes open in Cary Court," Rostov says, "people talk about the Gap." But with small retail spaces and tight parking, she says, "I don't think Carytown is conducive to them."
That's probably a good thing, Glass says. "I think the strength of Carytown is that it's eclectic, and it doesn't have very many chains."
Daniel remembers a recent visit to her café from a visitor who was new to Richmond. "We always chat with people, especially from out of town," she says, to find out what they like about the city and what they want to see while they're here.
"We have two new malls," someone in the café volunteered. But the visitor was unimpressed, Daniel says. "They said, 'So? If I wanted to go to a mall, I'd have stayed home.'" S
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